Friday, July 22, 2011

Triumph of the Tune

If You Can't Beat Them - Queen (mp3)

Musical documentaries focused on a single band or artist have one ultimate goal: Make us more heroic, more awesome. Make us More.

Many of these attempts come across as unflinching and honest, and they frequently offer the viewer some added insight to painful truths about the band or person, but the true goal never changes. Fans should walk away feeling even more proud of their fanaticism, and relative newbies should walk away compelled to be bigger fans. Otherwise, the film has failed.

Take the one Bob mentioned yesterday: The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Bob described it as “unvarnished,” but it didn’t hurt his opinion or impression of The Boss or his band or their music. The band is the protagonist. The band is the good guy.

I wrote about my experience seeing Beyond the Lighted Stage, the documentary on Rush, last summer. It’s clear I left that theater more amped up on Rush Luv than I’d been in a long time. I spent several weeks following that movie listening to my entire collection on shuffle and going to the local used CD store to purchase four old Rush CDs I’d never quite gotten around to acquiring.

Truth or Dare (Madonna). Rattle & Hum (U2). Shut Up and Sing (Dixie Chicks). Runnin’ Down a Dream (Tom Petty). These are just off the top of my head. All attempt various levels of “honesty,” but all ultimately aim to elevate their subjects and make them the protagonists of a noble tale.

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz is ultimately just a concert, but packed with guests and interviews with The Band members, and it has to be considered one of, if not The, best at elevating its subject from one level to another on the musical heirarchy.

Sure, The Band always had its fans and its followers, but this movie pushed them into another category on its own. If you mention The Band to most casual or feverish music fans, they’re far more likely to mention this documentary than any of their albums. They probably won’t even realize the song isn’t actually called “Take a Load Off, Fannie.”

I most recently watched Days of Our Lives, a documentary covering the musical life of Queen, created as a two-part documentary for the BBC that aired this spring.

In one sense, the film succeeded in its true mission. By the end of the week, I’d purchased $15 worth of Queen songs on Amazon.com, songs that rounded out the “Best of Queen” mixtape I wore the hell out in high school, a collection made by my pal Andy, inspired by his freshman year in college in 1988. And I certainly didn’t walk away from the film less impressed with the band’s music.

But in another sense, the documentary failed, because what I didn’t feel was closer to the band.

Over two hours, the film explores the band’s highlight moments, such as the desperate studio work that ultimately led to A Night at the Opera and the 5 million tracks needed to create “Bohemian Rhapsody.” You are constantly reminded that no one could create a stadium-rocking, audience-participatory anthem quite as regularly as Queen.

But the band always feels distant, removed from the fans and the film. The themes that run through the underbelly of this documentary are less than complimentary. After waking up from the success of their first two albums only to realize they weren’t seeing any of the money, the band somewhat understandably became obsessed with getting their due. Although the film doesn’t scream it, what became clear is that Queen was very much about the money for most of their careers.

This isn’t a unique problem for bands, but for this one, it seemed excessive. As every musician on the planet banned Sun City due to South Africa’s policy of Apartheid, Queen took the money and played. In interviews, Brian May claims the trip did far more good than harm, that they did good things, but Roger Taylor admits he wishes he’d never heard of the place. That they seemed surprised at the shitstorm they stirred by going to Sun City reeked of a unique kind of cluelessness. How didn't they see that coming? Why didn't anyone around them not say anything?

The other challenge was Freddie Mercury. He’s not around to defend himself, and the band love him. He’s easily one of the most-recognizable and charismatic frontmen in the history of rock, but you can’t help but see, through this film, how hard they had to try and keep The Real Life Freddie carefully polished in this film and throughout their careers. Freddie wasn't just gay. He was apparently the unleashed id Freud warned your mother about.

You also get the impression he was hell to work with. In a band full of precociousness, Freddie was... well, the queen of precocious. “Under Pressure” is easily one of my favorite songs of all friggin’ time, but it didn’t bring Bowie and Queen closer to each other. They finished their experience apparently swearing to never again work together creatively. Whereas the Rush documentary constantly had other musicians singing the band’s praises, Queen has no colleagues to call them heroes or idols.

Days of Our Lives wasn’t a bad film, but two hours to cover Queen? Like, the band’s entire career? I walked away feeling like too much was left hidden, too much was left unexplained. Art should almost always be judged separately from the artist, so this failing hasn't hurt my opinion of the music, but when you have that feeling, the feeling that things are intentionally being left out and unexplained, you can’t help but assume there must be good reasons, and that those reasons wouldn’t help with the ultimate purpose of all musical documentaries:

Make Us More.

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