Barges are a common sight on the Chao Phraya River in modern-day Bangkok. Unfortunately, these happen to be huge, ugly, industrial things that, pulled by tugs, crawl along the water like convoys of giant, mutant cockroaches, their cargoes sealed under dark tarpaulin, their sides and ends padded with chains of car and truck-tyres.
But to view the traditional
barges of Bangkok – those famously sleek and gliding vessels that were often
propelled by ‘more than 100 oarsmen’, went on their way ‘accompanied by the
harmonious sounds of rhythmic chanting’, were ‘delicately carved with gilded
lacquer and mirrored glass decorations’ and had prows fashioned in the forms of
‘mythical creatures’ – you need to pay a visit to the city’s National Museum of
The museum is next to the Bangkok Noi Khlong (Canal) just before it joins the Chao Phraya River. If you go there by river-ferry, you can disembark at the Phra Pin Klao Bridge pier north of the canal-river junction and make your way by foot. Be warned that the route from the pier to the museum is a slightly torturous (albeit signposted) one, which takes you through a labyrinth of narrow, twisting alleyways. These are lined with low, sun-bleached walls, large potted plants and the doors, verandas and gardens of tightly-packed houses; and punctuated with occasional tiny shops, occasional crumbling spirit-houses and occasional footbridges straddling narrow waterways. An added piece of local colour for my partner and I when we traversed this area was a drunk Thai guy sitting on some alleyway steps and happily shouting “Happy New Year!” in English at everyone who went by. (It was only noon at the time but it was almost New Year.)
We were starting to wonder if we would ever find the Barge Museum
in that charming but disorientating neighbourhood when, suddenly, we arrived at
its side door. The museum is contained
in a hangar that opens onto the canal, with the canal-water entering the
building between a series of indoor piers.
The barges are moored in the channels between the piers. Each vessel is accompanied by a sign giving
its vital statistics – its length, width and ‘depth’, its number of oarsmen and
crewmembers (apparently, oarsmen didn’t count as proper ‘crew’) and the years when
it was built and when it was restored.
As well as complete ones, there are also a few sections of barges,
resting on girders above the water. The
signs by these truncated specimens usually feature the line: ‘Damaged by a bomb
during World War II.’
Some of the exhibits here are gorgeous. Their gold-lacquered hulls are patterned with vines, leaves, flowers and processions of serpentine naga and squatting garuda. The ‘pavilions’ in the centre of their decks are topped with gracefully tiered or spired roofs. And their figureheads are fantastically sculpted. The most striking of those figureheads include a golden dragon’s head on a high, slender neck and sporting a long, gharial-like snout; a pugnacious-looking, red-bodied, golden-beaked garuda; and a spectacular naga with turquoise-centred, gold-edged scales, great flame-like crests and a tangle of seven heads. I have to say that, thanks to my inner movie nerd, that last one reminded me of King Ghidorah in the Godzilla films.
Another sign informed us, apologetically, that ‘craftsmen
are restoring the decoration of the Royal Barges preparing for the Royal Barges
Procession in 2019.’ Accordingly,
individual restorers and pairs and teams of them were hard at work on most of
the barges when we visited, scraping, cleaning, repainting and polishing their
intricate carvings, patterns and figureheads.
These restorers were of all shapes, sizes and ages and their presence didn’t
spoil our enjoyment of the museum at all.
Indeed, watching them carry out their painstaking restoration work was rather inspiring. They exuded a quiet enthusiasm for and pride in their craft. I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere out there is an alternative universe where I entered a different line of work from the line I entered in this universe and where I ended up having as my professional title: Restorer of Thai Barges. (Just as I sometimes like to imagine there are other alternative universes where I’m employed as an Egyptologist, or as a wolf biologist, or as a repairer of 18th century automatons…)
Last week was not an auspicious one for politicians who’ve
served as Member of Parliament for Peebles, my hometown in Scotland.
Firstly, Lord David Steel, who was the town’s MP from 1965 until 1997 (while it was part of the constituencies of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles and then Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) and who is also a former leader of the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats) found himself in some severe shit. He admitted in a hearing for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that in 1979 he’d ‘assumed’ his fellow Liberal MP Cyril Smith was guilty of child abuse at a hostel in Smith’s constituency of Rochdale. Not only did Steel appear to turn a blind eye to this matter at the time, but nine years later he recommended Smith for a knighthood. Since Smith’s death in 2010, police have uncovered ‘overwhelming evidence’ that he was an abuser of young boys. By Thursday last week, it’d been announced that “the office bearers of the Scottish Liberal Democrats have met and agreed that an investigation is needed. The party membership of Lord Steel has been suspended pending the outcome of that investigation.”
Then there were the desperate and undignified squirmings of David Mundell, the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, a constituency that Peebles got lumped in with in 2005. Since 2015, Mundell, or ‘Fluffy’ as he’s commonly known, has also served as Secretary of State for Scotland in the Conservative governments of David Cameron and Theresa May. He didn’t win this position because of the possession of a stunning intellect, abilities or personality but because in 2015 he was the only Conservative MP left in Scotland. (Back then, at the yearly Agricultural Show held in Peebles, the Conservative Party would invariably set up a tent and Mundell, aka The Only Tory MP In Scotland, would sit inside, ready to press the flesh with his constituents, should any present themselves. Passers-by would invariably point and crack the well-worn joke: “Look, there’s the RareBreeds Tent.”)
Last week, it became clear that the UK government and parliament were in omni-shambles mode. The parliament managed to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, against the holding of a second Brexit referendum, against the UK leaving the European Union without a deal, against the so-called Malthouse Compromiseand against parliament being allowed to take control of the whole sorry Brexit process. But even in the midst of this omni-shambles, Mundell’s behaviour stood out as particularly shambolic – his was the Fluffi-shambles.
He found himself caught between the rock of his party’s enthusiasm for Brexit and the hard place of knowing, quietly, how damaging Brexit is likely to be for Scotland (which voted overwhelming against leaving Europe), for his heavily agriculture-dependent Scottish constituency and for his own re-election prospects. Finally, he defied the government whip when the vote was called on ruling out an economically disastrous no-deal Brexit. The Conservative government demanded he voted against it being ruled out, whereas Mundell wanted it ruled out. Being spineless, though, he chose to abstain rather than vote the other way from his political peers and masters.
In ordinary times, even Mundell’s abstention would be treated as a defiance of government policy and a resigning matter for a minister. However, in these extraordinary times, with Theresa May exerting about as much authority as a wet paper bag, Mundell got away with it without resigning. Happily for him – the basic salary for an ordinary MP was £77,379 in 2018, but as Secretary of State for Scotland he can claim £67,505 on top of that (well, going by 2017 figures).
A subsequent interview saw Mundell give a less-than-polished
account of himself: “I’m not, er, resigning because I support the Prime
Minister in her course, er, of action.
Her course of action is, er, to leave, er, with a deal, er, in an
orderly Brexit but I just… I’m very clear that I don’t support, er, a no-deal, er,
Brexit and I’ve made, er, I’ve made that clear on numerous occasions, the House
has made its view clear, and the government is responding and taking forward, er,
the decision of the House today… There
are a number of cabinet ministers, ministerial colleagues, er, who didn’t wish
to oppose what was clearly, er, the will of the House on not leaving, er,
without, er, on not leaving with, er, in a no-deal, er, Brexit…”
I’d say that during the interview Mundell looked like a
rabbit frozen in some car headlights, but that would disparage the courage,
grit and determination displayed by rabbits frozen in car headlights
everywhere. Indeed, Mundell’s snivelling
performance would make the average rabbit frozen in car headlights look like
Mel Gibson leading the Scottish forces into action at the Battle of Stirling in
Oddly, the ‘numerous occasions’ when Mundell made it clear he was against a no-deal Brexit didn’t extend to an amendment tabled in parliament in late February to rule out that very thing. Mundell refused to support it, or even abstain on it, because those tabling the amendment were the Scottish National Party. He dismissed this as a ‘stunt’ and claimed that the SNP actually want the chaos that a no-deal Brexit would cause. Which is evidently why they proposed an amendment calling on the UK government to prevent a no-deal Brexit from happening… What?
When it comes to tying himself in knots like this, Mundell has form. In October last year, he and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson threatened that they “would resign if Northern Ireland faces new controls that separate it from the rest of the UK” in some new Brexit deal. Officially, this was because they feared it would “fuel the case for Scottish independence.” Unofficially, I suspect they were playing to the hard-line Protestant, Glasgow Rangers-supporting gallery in the west of Scotland that has strong ties with the pro-British Protestant community in Northern Ireland, a gallery whose votes they’ve benefited from in recent years. A few days later Mundell turned round and declared that he hadn’t intended to resign at all – and by mid-November May had indeed proposed a Brexit deal that might involve separate arrangements for Northern Ireland. At least his £67,505 ministerial top-up salary was safe.
In fact, whenever I see yet another cringing turn by David Mundell, I wonder why there’s any point in having a Secretary of State for Scotland at all. After all, responsibility for the running of Scotland’s domestic affairs doesn’t lie with him but with the Scottish government, at the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, which was set up in 1999. But the real reason why there’s a Secretary of State is obvious – the Scottish government is run by the pesky SNP and London feels the need to have the likes of David Mundell hovering in the background, looking on and harrumphing disapprovingly, like history’s crappest colonial governor ever.
And I sometimes wonder too if Theresa May, whose empathy, emotional intelligence and people skills are not thought to be large, even knows who poor old Mundell is. It wouldn’t surprise me if she believes he’s some fluffy-faced Caledonian footman who’s on hand to tend to her whenever her advisors decree that she visits the God-forsaken northern regions of her domain.
Still, awesomely hapless though he is, at least last week Mundell didn’t vote to leave the door open for a no-deal Brexit, even though by abstaining he didn’t vote against it either. That’s more than could be said for most of his dozen fellow Scottish Conservative MPs, who cravenly ignored the pro-EU wishes of their electorates and voted with the government. These include such specimens as Kirstene Hair, the intellectually-challenged MP for Angus, who once admitted to not voting in the Brexit referendum because she found the choice on offer ‘very difficult’. Or the splendidly unhinged Ross Thomson, MP for Aberdeen South, who last month got involved in a stushie in the UK parliament’s Strangers’ Bar, where he was accused of groping a number of people’s bottoms. Thomson’s defence was that he’d been drinking for five hours and was merely grabbing those bottoms in order to stop himself falling over, like they were handles or ledges. From this, I can only surmise that there are some very peculiarly shaped bottoms in the pubs of Westminster.
Actually, should Mundell decide that he can’t take it any longer, don’t be surprised if Mad Ross ends up as the next Secretary of State for Scotland. It’s not as if he’ll have to live up to the reputation of a distinguished predecessor.
A short story of mine entitled Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf has been published in the March
2019 edition of the webzine Aphelion. It’s
credited to the pseudonym Rab Foster, which I use for stories written in the
fantasy genre, and as you might expect from the title it’s largely set in a pub
– or to use terminology more appropriate to fantasy fiction, an ‘inn’ or a
Fantasy stories are riddled with taverns – usually populated by thirsty barbarians, dwarves, hobbits, etc., knocking back tankard after tankard of foaming ale. Off the top of my head, I can think of the Prancing Pony in the town of Bree in the first of the Lord of the Rings books; the Leaky Cauldron, the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head Inn in the HarryPotter novels; and the Silver Eel Tavern in Fritz Leiber’s witty Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Oh, and let’s not forget the Slaughtered Prince in Neil Gaiman’s novel Stardust (1999). When Stardust was filmed eight years later, a real-life hostelry called the Briton’s Arms in the picturesque, cobbled district of Elm Hill in Norwich was used as the Slaughtered Prince’s stand-in. I lived in Norwich in 2008-2009 and the Briton’s Arms was one of my regular hang-outs, but since it’s really a tea and coffee-shop the beverages I consumed there were non-alcoholic ones.
Anyway, despite the prevalence of taverns in this type of
literature, it occurred to me that the hard-working staff in these places – the
jolly ruddy-faced innkeepers, the saucy serving wenches (who would invariably
get pulled onto some bawdy barbarian’s lap in the course of their duties) and so
on – rarely get much attention. So I
thought it would be nice if, for once, there was a fantasy story that put them
centre-stage and featured one of them as its hero. Hence, Closing
Time at the Speckled Wolf.
Incidentally, the layout of the titular Speckled Wolf, with its island bar and high gantry, is inspired by the prestigious Café Royal in Edinburgh. The idea of the stained-glass windows came from the public bar of the Green Tree Hotel in my hometown of Peebles – though what’s depicted in the Green Tree’s windows is less dramatic than that in the Speckled Wolf’s windows. And I suspect the general ambience of the place was modelled on that of the Machar Bar in Aberdeen, where I spent many an evening (and afternoon) during the 1980s. Mind you, an acquaintance recently told me that by the early 2000s the once spare and no-nonsense Machar had acquired a carpet – a gruesome thought. So its ambience has evidently changed since my day…
For the next few weeks at least, you can access the March edition of Aphelion here and Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf itself here.
Following my previous post about the film BohemianRhapsody (2018), which tells the story of the 1970s / 1980s rock
band Queen and which I had very mixed feelings about, I thought I’d write about
the rock biopics I like best.
The first one that springs to mind is Control (2007), directed by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn. This focuses on Ian Curtis, frontman with the legendary and pioneering post-punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide in 1980. It has an appealing cast: Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his wife Deborah, plus Joe Anderson as Peter Hook, James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Summer and Harry Treadaway as Stephen Morris, Curtis’s fellow-bandmembers who after his death would regroup as New Order. But what makes Control special for me is how Corbijn blends the tragedy of Curtis’s life-story, the drabness of 1970s Macclesfield (Curtis’s hometown), the spare, pulsating and somehow beautiful bleakness of Joy Division’s music, and the romanticism that inspired and drove Curtis, and manages to create something that despite the final outcome is actually uplifting. Corbijn’s decision to film Control in colour but then convert the film-stock into moody black and white helps.
There’s also humour, a factor that, given the absurdities and excesses of the music industry, needs to be present in every good rock biopic. This comes largely courtesy of band manager Rob Gretton, played by Toby Kebbell. “It could be worse,” he tells Curtis in the aftermath of one of his devastating epileptic seizures. “At least you’re not the lead singer of the Fall.” Look out too for Salford performance-poet John Cooper Clarke, playing himself as a support act at a Joy Division gig. Only the enviably pencil-thin Clarke could get away with playing himself when he was thirty years younger.
I’m not a Beatles fan but I really enjoyed Backbeat (1994), the Iain Softley-directed film about the band’s pre-stardom period at the beginning of the 1960s when they spent time in Hamburg performing early rock ‘n’ roll standards. The Beatles of this era consisted of five members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best, played in Backbeat by Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O’Neill, Stephen Dorff and Scot Williams respectively. The main acting duties fall on Hart – who, incidentally, has also played Lennon in the 1991 movie TheHoursandTimes and the 2013 PlayhousePresents TV production Snodgrass – and Dorff because the movie focuses on the friendship between Lennon and Sutcliffe. The latter would die of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1962.
What sets the film alight is its music. To recreate the sound of the nascent Beatles
kicking ass on stage, the filmmakers smartly gathered together musicians from
1994’s hottest rock bands – Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, Greg Dulli from the Afghan
Whigs, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Don Fleming from Gumball, Mike Mills from
REM and Dave Grohl from Nirvana – and got them to knock out renditions of the
likes of Long Tall Sally and Good Golly Miss Molly. Even the muscular Henry Rollins (originally
from punk outfit Black Flag but in 1994 doing rather well with his own Rollins
Band) got in on in the act, providing the vocals for a sequence when Sutcliffe
tries and fails to croon Love Me Tender. In fact, the film’s only duff note is a brief
scene where it gratuitously and unconvincingly grafts Ringo Starr onto the
The bleakest film on my list is surely Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox’s 1986 re-enactment of the doomed romance between the Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and American groupie Nancy Spungen. Telling a love story that begins with boy meeting girl against a background of severe heroin abuse, continues with boy and girl in the grip of severe heroin abuse, and ends with boy stabbing girl to death thanks to severe heroin abuse, Sid and Nancy is a grim and at times difficult watch. But it has the saving grace of humour, even if it’s humour of the cringeworthy variety, such as when Sid is introduced to Nancy’s respectable, middle-class, all-American family and attempts to entertain them with a display of his ‘musicianship’. The lead actors are good too: Gary Oldman as Vicious and Chloe Webb as Spungen, although these days it’s weird to see David Hayman, regarded in Scotland now as a national treasure, in the role of Malcolm McLaren. Famously, Courtney Love lobbied hard, but unsuccessfully, to win the role of Nancy Spungen. A little too hard, some would say, considering what happened subsequently.
One person who’s not a fan of Sid and Nancy is John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, Vicious’ friend and fellow Sex Pistol. Lydon hated the way he was portrayed in the film by actor Andrew Schofield, who isn’t a Londoner like Lydon but is from Kirby, north of Liverpool. And he detested the film generally and Alex Cox in particular, dismissing it as a fantasy put together by ‘some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era’.
Next up is Oliver Stone’s 1991 dramatisation of the story of
late 1960s / early 1970s psychedelic-blues-rock band the Doors, simply called TheDoors,
which in many ways is a warped mirror image of BohemianRhapsody. Like the Queen biopic, it often veers away from
the truth. Unlike that later film,
however, it isn’t afraid to present a warts-and-all picture of its subjects,
especially of the band’s frontman Jim Morrison, who’s played by Val Kilmer. So well does Kilmer do in the role,
incidentally, that at times you forget it’s him you’re watching onscreen and
not Morrison himself.
Stone’s unflattering portrayal of Morrison, during his
decline from gorgeous, long-haired, rock-music Dionysus to beastly, babbling,
booze-befuddled sociopath and finally to bearded, beer-bellied, bathtub cadaver,
greatly upset fellow band-members Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robbie
Krieger (played in the film by Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whalley)
and his lover Patricia Kennealy (played by Kathleen Quinlan). Indeed, I suspect Kennealy, who married
Morrison in a Celtic pagan ceremony and is a pagan high priestess herself, may
have eschewed Celtic paganism’s usual benevolence and fired a few spells in
Stone’s direction after she saw the film.
Well, The Doors probably tells a few porkies but I have to say I really enjoyed it. It’s over-the-top and out-of-control and Stone goes too far by mixing in some guff about Native American shamanism, but its bacchanalian and hallucinogenic excesses feel exhilaratingly true of the era, if not wholly true of the band. And taken in the right spirit, the film is very funny. Comic highlights include Kennealy giving Morrison carnal encouragement with, “Come on, rock god. F**k me, f**k me good!” Or John Densmore expressing his reluctance to take acid and Morrison reassuring him, “Relax – it’s peyote.” Or Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) offering Morrison a golden telephone with which to ‘talk to God.’ Andy can’t use it himself because, it transpires, he doesn’t ‘have anything to say.’
Finally, my last pick on this list of rock biopics returns to the era of Joy Division, but isn’t about a band or musician. It’s about a record executive, Tony Wilson of Factory Records, the independent Manchester-based record label, who signed Joy Division in the late 1970s and struck gold again a decade later when he signed the Happy Mondays. This is 24 Hour Party People (2002), directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson. This time Joy Division are played by Sean Harris (Curtis), John Simm (Summer), Ralf Little (Hook) and Tim Horrocks (Morris), while the Happy Mondays are represented by Danny Cunningham and Paul Popplewell as Shaun and Paul Ryder and Chris Coghill as the band’s freaky-dancin’, maracas-shaking figurehead, Bez.
Before his musical successes, Wilson was best-known as a TV reporter for Granada Television and with Coogan in the role, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Coogan’s famous alter-ego, Alan Partridge. This is especially so at the film’s beginning when we see Wilson filming a report where he attempts to go hang-gliding: “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the latest craze sweeping the Pennines. I’ve got to be honest with you. Right now, I’d rather be sweeping the Pennines.”
24 Hour Party People cleverly subverts the issue of factual accuracy in music biopics with much post-modernism and breaking of the 4th wall – for example, when we see the fictional Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks, played by Martin Hancock, do something and then the real Howard Devoto appears in the frame and tells us that he doesn’t remember this happening back then. There’s a great supporting cast of character actors, comic performers and comedians, including Shirley Henderson, Andy Serkis, Rob Brydon, Dave Gorman, Peter Kay, Simon Pegg and Christopher Eccleston, while several real-life musicians make cameos including, in addition to Devoto, Mark E. Smith, Clint Boon and the Stone Roses’ Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield. And the film has many good lines, my favourite being when Wilson introduces the Ryders to Bez with the comment, “Every band needs its own chemistry. And Bez is a very good chemist.”
Finally, which band would I like to see a biopic of in the future? The answer to that question has got to be Hawkwind, the venerable ‘space rock’ band who’ve been slogging away since 1969 and whose ranks have included over the years such personalities, eccentrics and oddballs as Lemmy, ‘manic depressive hypo-maniac’ poet Robert Calvert, statuesque topless dancer Stacia, Ginger Baker,Arthur Brown, sci-fi / fantasy author Michael Moorcock and Dik Mik, operator of the ‘audio generator’ that provided the band with its distinctive whooshing noises. Properly done, you could end up with a hilarious comedy-drama that does for the characters of alternative English psychedelic rock music what Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) did for the characters of low budget 1950s Californian movie-making. So what do you think? Anton Corbijn? Michael Winterbottom? Oliver Stone, even? Anyone interested?
Beelzebub had a devil set aside for me recently while I spent most of 24 hours travelling with a particular airline from Sri Lanka to Scotland. The set-aside devil was the airline’s in-flight movie service, which was mostly composed of tired old rubbish like Johnny English Strikes Again (2018), while the only decent offerings were stuff like BlackPanther (2018) that I’d already seen.
Finally, to take my mind off the tedium of the flight, the
cramped-ness of my seat and the occasional unnerving shaking that outside
air-turbulence would subject the plane to (“Thunderbolts
and lightning / Very, very frightening!”), I gave in and watched BohemianRhapsody. This was last
year’s biopic of Queen, the 1970s / 1980s rock band who remain fabulously
popular today even though they’ve been creatively inert since 1991 when their singer
Freddie Mercury passed away. I watched the
film reluctantly, knowing that the critics had been at best lukewarm and at
worst scathing about it.
I suppose, I thought, I can’t be too picky… “Because
I’m easy come, easy go / A little high, little low / Any way the wind blows,
doesn’t really matter to me / To mee-eee….”
Actually, BohemianRhapsody has earned (as of a week ago)
861 million dollars around the world, despite the critics turning up their
noses at it. This is in keeping with the
great Queen divide. Back in the days
when they were a properly functioning band, people I knew who considered themselves
serious and knowledgeable connoisseurs of music would tell me that though they
tried to be broad-minded, they just couldn’t stomach bloody Queen, whom they
saw as purveyors of bloated, corny, stomp-along, guitar-twiddling shite. Meanwhile, other folk, who bought at most three CDs a year and barely knew the
difference between Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley and Reg Presley – the majority
of the British population in other words – believed Queen were the absolute
bees knees and anyone voicing a negative opinion of the band was just “a big disgrace / kicking their canall over the place.” So this chasm between what the cultural
intelligentsia thought of Queen and what the ordinary masses thought of them is
Incidentally, I have to say I found it ironic how popular Queen were in the 1970s and 1980s among guys who styled themselves as straightforward, unpretentious, down-to-earth, laddish, maybe a bit unreconstructed and probably a bit homophobic. They’d punch you in the face if you suggested they might be into anything involving ‘puffs’. But after a few seconds of hearing the shamelessly camp Freddie Mercury crooning, “Oooh, you make me live… / Oooh, you’re my best friend!”, they’d be hugging each other, be singing along in cracked-with-emotion voices and have tears rolling down their cheeks.
It’s telling that in his memoir The Long Hard Road out of Hell (1998), Marilyn Manson recalls how
at his Christian school in Ohio, pupils received regular lectures about the
evils of heavy metal and hard rock music – and the band those Christian
teachers seemed to fear and hate most all was Queen, due to the effect that Freddie’s
sexually-ambiguous prancing and preening might be having on the sons of
Anyway, watching BohemianRhapsody, I certainly felt there was plenty wrong with it. The problem with building a dramatic narrative out of Queen’s story is that there’s hardly any drama in it. They got together in 1970, had a monster hit with BohemianRhapsody-the-single in 1975 and then stayed at the top for the next 16 years, their popularity seemingly impervious to the coming and going of musical fads like disco, punk, New Romanticism, goth, ska, the Mod revival, the Madchester scene, rap, techno, hair metal and grunge. No doubt the late 1980s and early 1990s were traumatic for them when Freddie was diagnosed as HIV positive, became sick and died from AIDS in 1991, but the film doesn’t hang around long enough to chart those final years. Rather, it ends on the high note of Queen’s famously barnstorming performance at the Live Aid concert at Wembley in July 1985.
Lacking real historical drama, the film tries to generate some by playing fast and loose with the facts. It depicts the band as having effectively broken up by 1985 thanks to Freddie’s out-of-control ego and the other band-members’ intransigence and lack of adventurousness, with the Live Aid concert being their last chance to pull themselves together and prove to the public that they’re still relevant. As a plot device this is lame – and, factually, it’s nonsense because no such schism had appeared in the real band. I remember them being ubiquitous during the year before Live Aid because of the success of their TheWorks album and singles like RadioGa Ga and I Want to Break Free. Another liberty with the truth (and the film has many of these) is a big emotional moment before they take the Wembley stage when Freddie tells the others he’s HIV positive. In reality, he didn’t know this until 1987.
Conversely, the stuff that might have generated some drama, i.e. the band’s moral warts and carbuncles, are discretely airbrushed away, which probably has something to do with Queen’s lead guitarist and drummer Brian May and Roger Taylor being the film’s ‘creative consultants’. So we get nothing about, for instance, their decision to play some lucrative gigs at the Sun City complex in Bophuthatswana, South Africa, during the apartheid era, which landed them on a United Nations blacklist; or the fact that in late 1985 they released a supposedly Live Aid-inspired song called OneVision and then kept all the profits for themselves. No wonder they used to sing, “I want it all / I want it all… / And I want it now.”
Also doused in a tankerload of whitewash is the issue of Freddie’s promiscuity. In reality, in 1984, Freddie bragged to the DJ Paul Gambaccini with hedonistic and – considering the times – reckless abandon: “Darling, my attitude is ‘f**k it’. I’m doing everything with everybody.” (Later, Gambaccini reflected, “I’d seen enough in New York to know that Freddie was going to die.”) But in BohemianRhapsody he’s presented as a victim. Insecure about his sexuality, he’s led astray by his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who lures him into a world of partying, orgy-ing and general dissolution. In another clumsy move to tie everything in with Live Aid, the film has Mercury firing Prenter shortly before the concert. But the real Prenter didn’t get his marching orders until 1986, one year afterwards.
Despite everything, though… I did enjoy the film. Sort of.
It has an endearing cast: not just Rami Malek as Freddie – who, in a crowd-pleasing move by the Academy, picked up the Oscar for Best Actor the other day – but also Gwilym Lee as May, Ben Hardy as Taylor and Joe Mazello as the band’s quiet but affable bassist John Deacon. It helps that these young actors actually resemble the band members they’re playing and the physical quirks that made Queen seem a little more human, like Freddie’s oversized incisors and May’s bombed-out buzzard’s nest of a hairdo, are lovingly recreated.
Also, Mike Myers has a neat supporting role as a record executive called Ray Foster, who apparently wasn’t a real person but a composite of various real-life executives who tried to put a stick in the band’s creative spokes. Equipped with frizzy hair, sunglasses, a hideous woollen tank top and yet another provincial accent from the Mike Myers version of Britain, Foster gruffly objects to the idea that BohemianRhapsody-the-song be released as a single: “It goes on forever. Six bloody minutes!” To which Freddie retorts: “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever.”
The most enjoyable parts for me, however, were the script’s clunking attempts to foreshadow some of the band’s biggest hits. It was fun to see how many micro-seconds it took me to work out which song they were talking about. For example, when Freddie starts rabbiting on about how he wants to do a rock song with opera in it… It’s Bohemian Rhapsody! Or when May says he wants to write a song where the crowd can join in by clapping their hands and stamping their feet… It’s We Will Rock You! Or when John Deacon horrifies the others by proposing they do a disco tune… It’s Another One Bites the Dust!
This foreshadowing got to the point where I expected to hear an exchange like: “What, David Bowie wants to record with us? That makes me nervous. I feel under pressure already!” “Wait, I have an idea for a title…” Or: “Writing film scores can’t be too difficult. In fact, I bet I could write one in a flash.” “Well, funny you should say that, because Dino De Laurentiis happens to be producing a new movie…”
To sum up: I found Bohemian Rhapsody dumb, superficial, bombastic and somewhat problematic, but also fun and entertaining and even uplifting in a slightly tacky way. Which is appropriate, because that’s very much how I find Queen.