Fate, Free-Will and Rock ‘n’ Roll
3 & ½ popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
I once knew a rock band, The Original Kounts, and, because lead singer Howard “Richard” Tepp was my best friend, I was sort of the manager for a while sometime in the late 1960s. That was before Bob Crewe’s Larry Brown (“Tie a Yellow Ribbon”) walked into Newark, N.J.’s Indian Pizzeria and heard Howie singing to the juke box. I think I was eating a tuna sub. Well, before you could say rock star, Howie became Richard of Richard and The Young Lions, had a number one hit in Cleveland, Detroit and D.C. with his single, “Open up Your Door” and, as the apocrypha goes, might have also had a career-propelling hit in NYC were it not for the DJ strike.
No skin off my Ashtabula about the managerial position. I wanted to be a writer, anyway. Besides, I moved up to a much more hallowed position in the rock ‘n’ roll world: best friend to the lead. This entitled me, as now self-assumed spiritual adviser, to regularly accompany the band to Crewe Productions’ lofty offices in New York, which of course required skipping a lot of college classes and later led to the necessity of completing my matriculation in Iowa. But as a short order cook in rural Pennsylvania assured me on my way out there, “It’s all good.”
Ensconced in the world of rock ‘n’ roll dreams, I observed firsthand the stencil by which the road to would-be stardom and adulation nary veers. Oh, sure, there are permutations and variations on a theme. Synergies among band members may differ; maybe the bigwigs don’t decide that better studio musicians should back the lead in recording sessions; not all production companies ill-advisedly put the money behind another group at the most inopportune time; and it isn’t a given that key band members will jump ship, just as it isn’t compulsory for the lead to eventually pine for solo success.
Of course, feel free to add the catalysts of drugs, booze, groupies, greed and lovers to the cauldron of what shapes a rock band’s path to platinum, oblivion or just plain also-ran status. But while most vocalists and strummers would agree that reaching the plateau where one is driven to concert and studio in chauffeured Rolls Royce is the undeniable career goal, most would also concur that creative discoveries and the dreams of stardom in the days and nights while reaching for the brass ring were the most fun of all.
All this self-indulgent perspective noted, I thank director Bryan Singer for jogging these memories into high-relief via his superb biographical film, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which astutely and soulfully details the birth of the group Queen and the star trajectory of its lead singer, Freddie Mercury. So no, you’re not in the wrong film criticism. My justification for the preface is the opportunity “Bohemian Rhapsody” afforded me to show just how a film can speak to you.
It all came rushing back: the petty fights, the gleeful chumming about, the aspirations and, maybe best of all, like lottery ticket holders excitedly sharing how they’ll spend their fortune, the delirious, collective wish for a catapult to some indefinable, musical nirvana. Only a few hundred million dollars separated Queen’s success from Richard and the Young Lions’s eventual ascension to cult status among music aficionados who hunt vinyl at retro record shops.
Point of disclosure: All my vaunted, insider claims noted, I knew virtually very little about Queen and Freddie Mercury’s meteoric rise. Fact is, aside from my fleeting brush with the rock ‘n’ roll world, when most of my friends were attending concerts at Fillmore East, I was at the movies. But actually, I was a fan without knowing it. Over the years, more than once, when wondering who sang a song I found myself enamored of, my search divulged it was Queen.
Now, thanks to this rather traditional biographical treatment splendidly embellished with all the modern, filmic doodads, including some terrific music sequences, I know the backstory. Sporting fake buckteeth and a bearing that fans of Mercury will deem astonishingly clone-like, Rami Malek fabulously etches more than one scene the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can show on Oscar night when announcing the nominees for best male performance. Via his diminutive, energetic frame, he embodies every aspect of rock star majesty.
It is also eerie and telling that he might subconsciously suspect his talent is preciously temporary, as if on loan from one of the Olympian gods, replete with an ironic caveat…all leading to that incessant question: What to do, what to do with this precious gift? With “Bohemian Rhapsody,” understanding the precepts, canons and conventions that attend the alchemy of showbiz success, sub-species rock stardom, director Singer smartly and symphonically affirms Freddie Mercury and Queen’s important place in our cultural history.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Bryan Singer and stars Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton and Gwilym Lee. Running time: 134 minutes