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Outsized Music Personalities Featured In 'Bohemian Rhapsody' And 'Maria By Callas'

Nov 2, 2018
Originally published on November 3, 2018 10:39 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Outsized music personalities feature in two films opening this weekend. "Bohemian Rhapsody" has Rami Malek playing Freddie Mercury of the rock group Queen. And the documentary "Maria By Callas" gives audiences the famous opera star in her own words. Critic Bob Mondello watched them back to back. It was, as he says, a tale of two divas.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: She had the best of voices. She had the worst of reputations. Opera fans in the 1940s and '50s couldn't get enough of La Divina, the divine one, a raven-haired beauty the press kept calling tempestuous. Maria Callas didn't just sing. She brought her life to her music.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARIA BY CALLAS")

MARIA CALLAS: There are two people in me. I would like to be Maria, but there is the Callas that I have to live up to.

MONDELLO: This 1970 interview with David Frost open's director Tom Volf's adoring profile "Maria By Callas."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARIA BY CALLAS")

DAVID FROST: In a crunch, who has to win, Maria or Callas?

CALLAS: I like to think that they both go together. I've done nothing falsely. I've worked with all honesty. So if somebody really tries to listen to me seriously, one will find all of myself in there.

MONDELLO: Tom Volf's book "Maria by Callas" aimed to tell her story as she would have through her letters, photos, interviews. Here, the film has all that plus rare footage, sometimes colorized, that captures the spell she wove, whether fighting with paparazzi...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARIA BY CALLAS")

CALLAS: I'm not answering any interview. Now stop it.

MONDELLO: ...Or appearing on stage, her golden throat adorned with four, five, six ropes of pearls - for her Paris debut, diamonds that were rivaled by the tears that glistened on her cheeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARIA BY CALLAS")

CALLAS: (Vocalizing).

MONDELLO: With no one asking tough questions, Callas is allowed to defend the missteps that put her on front pages in a less-positive light. Midway through a gala in Rome, an audience that included the president of Italy was stunned to hear that she would not continue.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARIA BY CALLAS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).

MONDELLO: She had bronchitis, she says in a letter, and could not in good conscience moan the rest. The audience was not sympathetic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARIA BY CALLAS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The first act of "Norma" was performed perhaps not perfectly but well enough. The other acts were not insulted.

MONDELLO: The film also has footage from La Divina's nearly as operatic offstage life - her romance with Aristotle Onassis even as he was marrying Jackie Kennedy, her being pushed around at an arts gala by both a baby elephant and by Omar Sharif. As you'd expect of an opus entitled "Maria By Callas," The film is unfailingly sympathetic to the diva at its center. It accepts her status as a legend and does its best to enhance it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

QUEEN: (Singing) Galileo, Galileo...

MONDELLO: "Bohemian Rhapsody" is also in the legend-enhancing business.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

BEN HARDY: (As Roger Taylor) How was that?

RAMI MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) Higher.

HARDY: (As Roger Taylor) If I go any higher, only dogs will hear me.

MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) Try.

QUEEN: (Singing) Galileo...

MONDELLO: It's the story of Queen and especially of its lead singer, Freddie Mercury.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

HARDY: (As Roger Taylor) How many more Galileos do you want?

MONDELLO: Mercury had an experimental vision that didn't fit the rock paradigm, and the film gives us his vision in broad musical comedy strokes, alternating between offstage antics that are jokey and often unbelievable...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

HARDY: (As Roger Taylor) Who even is Galileo?

MONDELLO: ...And onstage sequences that capture the electricity that made Queen one of glam rock's top concert draws in the '70s. The real Queen's recordings provide the music while "Mr. Robot's" Rami Malek struts and swaggers with false buck teeth that are, if anything, more prominent than those of the real Freddie Mercury. The concert sequences are everything you want them to be. The rest - well, it's pretty bland, the sort of conflict-free storytelling you get when nearly all of a biopic's principles are still alive. Freddie has mild disagreements with the band...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) Roger, there's only room in this band for one hysterical queen.

MONDELLO: ...And with a record exec played by Mike Myers, Wayne of "Wayne's World."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

MIKE MYERS: (As Ray Foster) It goes on forever - six bloody minutes.

MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) I pity your wife if she thinks six minutes is forever.

MONDELLO: That is the level the script operates on. The direction, credited to Bryan Singer though he was fired in mid-shoot, is mostly about making concerts look like music videos, which short-changes the offstage bits. But they aren't always historically accurate anyway, from Freddie telling the band he is HIV-positive in scenes set years before he was actually diagnosed to the film simply ignoring Queen's political missteps, like breaking UN cultural boycott to perform in apartheid-era South Africa just months before the big Live Aid for Africa benefit that gives the film its climax. The theory seems to be that in a jukebox musical...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

QUEEN: (Singing) Mamma mia, mamma mia...

MONDELLO: ...As the title song has it, nothing really matters. If you can accept that, you should have an OK time at "Bohemian Rhapsody." As for Freddie Mercury, is this his real life? Is this just fantasy - not sure that really matters either. When Malek's strutting like a peacock, this movie is a decently amusing escape from reality. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

QUEEN: (Singing) So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye. So you think you can love me and leave me to die. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.