So often in life, we end up settling, taking jobs we merely tolerate, getting into relationships that are less than satisfying, and sacrificing our creative visions for purposes of practicality, convenience or commercialization. How unfulfilling those experiences generally prove to be. But need things be that way? Can we live our lives on our terms, attaining the gratification we crave? Maybe it just takes a little inspiration to put us on the path toward that kind of personal, professional and creative fulfillment, an example amply depicted in the provocative new biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (web site, trailer).
What does it mean to live a royal lifestyle without being a member of the monarchy? Just ask Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), lead singer of the legendary rock band Queen, itself an iconic ensemble in the world of pop music. From 1970 to his death in 1991, the flamboyant front man with a four-octave vocal range left a mark on the music world as a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and arranger, both as part of the band and as a solo artist, as well as a producer of other artists. His wide-ranging contributions to the field of rock music, with influences from a variety of other genres including everything from funk to opera, helped distinguish Mercury as a singular talent unlike virtually anyone else in the business.
Born Farrokh Bulsara in Tanzania in 1946, the enigmatic musician and artist of Parsi descent spent much of his childhood in Mumbai and Africa before he and his family (Ace Bhatti. Maneka Das, Priya Blackburn) emigrated to England to escape the persecution of Indians during the Zanzibar Revolution. Once in London, he took an active interest in the local music scene while working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport and as a secondhand clothing purveyor in a resale shop with his eventual girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). His big break came in 1970, when Farrokh, now known by the stage name Freddie Mercury, teamed up with guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) in a band called Smile after that group’s lead singer quit. A year later the trio was joined by bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), and the group’s name was changed to Queen, a designation Mercury considered more befitting of the ensemble’s regal, self-assured attitude and diverse, profound talent.
With Mercury’s flamboyant stage presence and his emergence as a solid songwriter, along with the strong supportive backing of manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen), best known for skyrocketing the career of Elton John, the band took off with hits like the campy pop number “Killer Queen”, the enigmatic operatic-inspired “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the heartfelt ballad “Love of My Life”, a song Mercury penned for Mary. These diverse compositions revealed a tremendous range, one that helped set Queen apart from other acts.
Fans ate up the band’s varied musical styles, which was good for building a loyal following but which also made the group difficult to classify, a quandary for Ray Foster (Mike Myers), the head of Queen’s record label, EMI Records. To counter that argument, Mercury and his band mates insisted that such musical diversity is what made Queen the phenomenon that it was becoming, but Foster would have none of that, especially when the group pressed for having the six-minute-long “Bohemian Rhapsody” released as a single off their album A Night at the Opera in 1975. Foster refused their request, and the band walked out, the quartet proclaiming on their departure that Foster would become known as the man who lost Queen, a fateful prediction that would eventually become notorious in the music business.
As Queen’s star power soared, Mercury and his cohorts began living the lifestyle of true rock gods. For Freddie, this enabled him to lead the extravagant, outrageous life he always aspired to. In pursuing such a lavish way of life, he began leaving his old existence behind, and one of the casualties of this was Mary. While he freely acknowledged that she was indeed his soul mate, her grounding influence wasn’t enough to rein in someone who was increasingly interested in indulging his whims and experimenting with what life had to offer, particularly in the sexual arena.
Freddie began exploring his gay side, eventually becoming lovers with Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), John Reid’s assistant. The relationship ultimately proved to be a disaster, though, as Paul’s opportunistic nature surfaced. Over time, Paul manipulated Freddie into unilaterally firing Reid, a move that spawned discord in the band. He also surrounded Freddie with an array of bad influences who enabled him to live out his fantasies but who also contributed to undermining his health and well-being. As rapidly as his star rose, Freddie was on a decline personally and professionally, a cycle that only ended when he broke off this toxic relationship.
Meanwhile, Freddie began growing concerned that he may have contracted AIDS, the devastating illness that was ravaging the gay community at the time. He wondered how much time he had left and wanted to make the most of it, first by patching up his relationship with his musical colleagues and then by smoothing over his fragile friendship with Mary. He also wanted to explore relationship possibilities with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), a kindly but no-nonsense server who worked at one of Freddie’s outlandish soirees. Making peace with himself and his life became crucial with the prospect of a death sentence hanging over him.
In addition to these personal reconciliations, Freddie felt compelled to leave some kind of lasting professional legacy as well. That opportunity arose when Queen was offered the chance to perform at Live Aid in 1985, the legendary benefit concert organized by activist and musician Bob Geldof (Dermot Murphy) designed to help raise funds for the starving in Ethiopia. With an extensive broadcast satellite network linking the globe to live performances in London and Philadelphia, the concert was slated to feature appearances by such luminaries as Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, U2, The Who, Madonna, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, among others. Joining such a line-up gave Queen a chance to join elite company and to perform on a worldwide stage, and Freddie and the band took full advantage of the opportunity. The group’s 21-minute Live Aid segment would later go on to be voted the best live rock performance in music history. In that brief span, Mercury cemented his place as one of the most iconic figures in rock of all time.
Despite some of his excesses and exercises in questionable judgment, Freddie’s life brilliantly shows us what it means to live life on our own terms. He may have drawn criticism for some of his choices and behavior, but he refused to compromise himself artistically or to shy away from pursuing life’s pleasures to their fullest. He packed a lot of experiences into his 45 years, and, even though his time may have been shorter than he probably hoped for, he certainly had a great ride, one that many of us would likely envy, especially those among us who refuse to get off the sidelines and enjoy what our existence has to offer.
As well made as this biopic is, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has nevertheless polarized viewers. In my view, though, many of the criticisms have struck me as cynical, superficial or, most importantly, insufficiently explained. Many reviews have contended things like “Freddie Mercury deserved a better movie” without offering further elaboration. Granted, the film has come under the microscope for some factual discrepancies and revisionist interpretations of certain historical events, criticisms that are not without merit. However, given that former band members Brian May and Roger Taylor were actively involved in the making of this production, one can’t help but wonder how much credence should be given to these disparagements.
Overall, this offering hits mostly right notes in telling its story and enlightening viewers about its central character. Malek is outstanding in the lead role, one that could have easily turned cartoonish if not properly handled. The re-creation of the band’s Live Aid performance is stunning, moving and uplifting. What a true joy it is to see someone fully living up to his potential in the moment, qualities that both made Mercury’s performance as well as Malek’s portrayal of it. If nothing else, see this one for this and the other excellent performance sequences, but don’t be surprised if you come away loving it for the rest of its qualities as well.
For his part, Freddie Mercury refused to settle, no matter what area of his life was involved. Had he done otherwise, he likely would have faded into obscurity (or worse). He realized, just as the title of one of Queen’s early hits suggests, that’s what it takes to “Keep Yourself Alive”. And, if we truly want the same for ourselves, we had all be prepared to follow suit. Only by doing that can we claim that we are the champions.
A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.
A Mother’s Love and Journey of Revelation
Getting at the truth isn’t always easy. It may be obscured by camouflage, and accessing it may be difficult because of roadblocks or obstacles. And yet, once that elusive truth is found, it could potentially be so painful that one might wish it had stayed concealed. However, for those who are committed to seeing it being told, it takes certain skills, most notably in the areas of tact, compassion and forthrightness, to convey the information, especially to those most in need of hearing it. These are qualities essential to the missions of a courageous mother and son as seen in the gripping new drama, “Viper Club” (web site, trailer).
Helen Sterling (Susan Sarandon) leads a hectic enough life as an emergency room nurse that she certainly doesn’t need any more drama than is already in it. But that wish, unfortunately, goes ignored when she learns that her son, Andrew (Julian Morris), a free-lance journalist covering the crisis in Syria, goes missing and is presumed kidnapped by terrorists, a reality confirmed when she receives a ransom demand for $20 million. A parent’s worst nightmare comes true, and she feels utterly helpless to do anything.
Helen initially contacts government authorities, first through an FBI agent (Patrick Breen) and then a State Department official (Damian Young), for help. In true bureaucratic form, however, progress in securing Andrew’s release is excruciatingly slow, with endless red tape and incessant protocols. What’s worse, though, is that Helen is kept in the dark about what’s transpiring behind the scenes. And, on top of that, officials insist that she tell no one about her circumstances, leaving her to suffer in silence and solitude. Her hands are tied at every turn.
As Helen’s frustration grows, so, too, does her desire to take matters into her own hands, despite warnings from officials that her actions could jeopardize Andrew’s life. They also caution her that any attempt on her part to pay the ransom could land her (and anyone who assists her) in jail, given that such actions violate federal law. But, considering the persistent, protracted run-around that she’s been getting, Helen’s patience is running out.
With the encouragement of Andrew’s former girlfriend, Sheila (Sheila Vand), Helen is urged to make contact with her son’s unofficial support network, the Viper Club. This loosely organized but tightly knit group of peers and their backers aids free-lance war correspondents having no media organization affiliations with all kinds of assistance, from finances to security to hostage extraction. The network keeps a low profile but frequently manages to attain success, despite the organization’s clandestine and legally questionable nature.
Unsure where else to turn, Helen meets with one of the club’s principal state-side contacts, Charlotte (Edie Falco), a well-to-do, well-connected networker who knows what Helen is going through, her son having been a former but successfully released hostage. In their initial meeting, Helen expresses concern about the ransom amount. She’s willing to hand over everything she has, but her resources come nowhere close to what’s being demanded. Charlotte reassures her, however, that, as one of the network’s chief fund-raisers, she’ll be able to quietly find the money. Thus, with the aid of other network members, such as Sam (Matt Bomer), a former journalist-turned-negotiator and go-between, the covert quest to secure Andrew’s release begins.
However, despite the encouraging progress made by the network, Helen is still left to wait for news largely on her own, reluctantly agreeing to adhere to the government’s admonition not to reveal her situation to anyone (or, at least, anyone else, that is). This leaves her with much time to think about her circumstances, particularly her relationship with Andrew. Through a series of flashbacks to when he was a child (Jack McCarthy), she reflects on the maturation of a boy who seemed the least likely candidate to grow up and become a war correspondent. She wonders what possessed him to pursue such a course, given that it seemed so completely out of character. Such pondering gives her great pause, especially in light of the conditions under which she now finds herself.
To find her answers, though, Helen need look no further than herself and her vocation. The kind of boundless compassion she brings to her work – both through her concerted patient care efforts and her tactful but frank honesty with patients’ loved ones – is the same quality that Andrew brings to his calling, a trait plainly apparent in his frontline reporting. Like mother, like son, they both care deeply about what they do and the people they’re trying to help. They want the truth to be known. And they hope that their efforts will not be in vain.
This process of discovery is challenging but revelatory for Helen. She comes to see her son – and herself – for who each of them really is. She discovers what it truly means to be a hero despite the tremendous risks and the ever-present danger of potential disaster, be it on the life and death battlefront of war or on the life and death battlefront of a trauma center. This is something that becomes readily apparent both through Andrew’s war zone videos and through the care Helen provides to a comatose young shooting victim (Mattea Conforti) and her concerned mother (Lola Kirke). The venues may be different, but the challenges are much the same.
The world clearly needs more people like Helen and Andrew, and “Viper Club” makes that point abundantly clear. The film, unfortunately, has been unduly and unfairly criticized on a number of fronts, most of which, in my view, are born from decidedly cynical and superficial outlooks. This gut-wrenching, heart-tugging drama ripped from the pages of contemporary headlines tells a story that needs to be told, an objective that parallels the very mission of the characters on screen, one whose pitfalls are revealed all too candidly. Sarandon turns in one of the best performances of her career in this film, one that’s truly worthy of awards consideration but that, regrettably, is likely to be overlooked come nomination time. While the film is, admittedly, a bit slow in spots and deviates from the main narrative perhaps a little more than it should, this thoughtfully written release nevertheless offers more than just the basics of what one might expect from it, especially when it comes to the emotional punch it packs. Because of that, better keep those hankies handy, just in case.
It’s been suggested that the truth, coupled with a hefty balm of compassion, is essential to healing the wounds that many of us suffer, especially those of an emotional nature. Thankfully there are people out there like Helen and Andrew who provide such valuable assistance. But what of them – who cares for their needs? Surely the caregivers need nurturing of their own at some point, particularly when their circumstances become especially trying. That’s when the rest of us need to step up and follow their leads, to provide the kind of support to them that they so freely give to everyone else. If there’s nothing else we take away from this film, we should at least recognize and, when needed, emulate the example set by these courageous and compassionate souls, to give to them what they so freely give to us. If more of us would do that, we just might make this planet a better place after all.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Seeking To Preserve What’s Slipping Away
When life slips away from us, it can be difficult for all concerned. The impact of time and illness can be devastating for those afflicted and trying for onlooking loved ones. It can be especially frustrating when patients succumb to neurological disorders, like various types of dementia, because outwardly they may not appear sick but, instead, drift away as their memories fail them. In those cases, loved ones can often do little more than watch as they witness the people they’ve known vanish without disappearing. Such is the challenge put to a family in the new heart-tugging drama, “What They Had” (web site, trailer).
To say that Ruth and Bert Everhardt (Blythe Danner, Robert Forster) share the love of perpetual newlyweds would be an understatement. They share a comfortable, nicely appointed condo in an upscale Chicago neighborhood, and their material needs appear to be sufficiently met. For all practical purposes, they would seem to be enjoying their Golden Years together. There’s just one hitch: Alzheimer’s is robbing Ruth of her memory, routinely prompting erratic, unexplained behavior and an increasing lack of awareness of such fundamentals as knowledge of who she’s married to (or that she’s even married at all). Bert attends to her needs as best he can, but, as a cardiac patient in failing health himself, there’s only so much he can do.
Circumstances take a dramatic turn late one night when Ruth quietly slips out of the house and disappears into a snowstorm. When Bert awakens to find her gone, he panics, desperately phoning his son, Nick (Michael Shannon), for help. Nick, in turn, contacts his sister, Bridget (Hilary Swank), in California, alerting her to the increasingly dire situation back at home, a development that prompts her to visit the Windy City to help out.
Fortunately, Ruth is found safely, though many miles from home. The disappearance, however, concerns Nick so much that he strongly reiterates his suggestion that his mom be transferred to a facility for the memory impaired, a notion that Bert flatly, stubbornly and angrily rejects. Bert contends that he can care for Ruth at home on his own and that transfer to special housing isn’t warranted. Bridget tries to play peacemaker between father and son, though her efforts often fall on deaf ears on both sides of the issue.
Given this stalemate, and with conditions at home growing ever more difficult, it’s obvious Bridget won’t be heading back home any time soon. It’s apparent she needs to stay and help out Nick and her dad with mom’s care. Not that she minds, either, given that her marriage to Eddie (Josh Lucas) seems to be teetering on the brink (even though Eddie himself is unaware of that fact). But, in leaving one difficult situation behind, she’s stepping into another one that’s just as frustrating and more volatile.
As the family’s saga plays out, everyone concerned is left to contend with not only the present circumstances, but also with old issues from the past that have gone unresolved. Brother and sister have their share of contentions to work out, as do father and son and father and daughter. And, as they attempt to sort out these matters, there’s always the threat that Ruth will do something unpredictable, like disappear yet again.
“What They Had” pointedly details what it means to be part of a family dealing with a serious health crisis, one that’s deceptively difficult to manage in light of the patient’s generally cheerful demeanor and surprisingly high degree of lucidity much of the time. It also does a fine job in examining the switching of caregiver roles between child and parent, a natural progression that occurs over time and for which many offspring are seldom prepared.
Conditions like these naturally beg a number of questions, such as how much freedom should be given to a patient who may be just fine one day and lost in the woods the next? How are family members supposed to reconcile opposing views about patient care when they’re opinions are miles apart? How much should such disagreements get in the way of providing what’s best for an ill loved one? What’s more, how effectively can these questions be addressed when those thorny unresolved issues from the past keep intruding on taking care of what’s most important in the here and now? This is what the Everhardts are up against, and, over time, matters only get worse.
As affecting as “What They Had” often is, however, the film is not without its problems. The picture’s exceptional performances across the board and its heart-tugging story work wonders in saving a release that would otherwise be cast to the throes of mediocrity. To be sure, Danner, Forster, Shannon and Swank turn in some of their best work here, but, unfortunately, the screenplay these veteran actors have to work with isn’t up to the talent they bring to the table. They often fall prey to underdeveloped or even amateurish dialogue and a narrative clogged up with several irrelevant and uninteresting subplots, such as the tense, often-dysfunctional relationship between Bridget and her college age daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Watch this one for its touching story and the on-screen work of its superb cast but try not to pay too much attention to the lines they’ve been dealt to deliver.
In instances such as this, we’re reminded that none of us never really knows how much time we’ve got, both for ourselves and in the lives we share with others. Because of that, it’s often been suggested that we say the things we want to say while we still have the chance, because those opportunities can quickly evaporate. That’s true whether our loved ones actually pass on or whether they transition out of existence without physically disappearing. The example set by the Everhardt family should serve as a lesson to all of us to make sure we let others know that we care – while there’s still time.
Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.