This is Not a Review of "Hugo"
by Eric J Baker
To paraphrase French surrealist painter René Magritte, This is Not a Review of Hugo. Except I’m not being ironic or existentialist. I’m issuing a warning and a promise: This is not a review of Hugo.
It’s not even a review styled after those of our own James Tuttle, whose write-up on The Immortals had me laughing out loud the other day. See, there’s a dearth of shirtless hunks in Hugo, which is good since it’s a kid’s movie, but it’s also bad since shirtless hunks is mostly what Tuttle talks about in his movie reviews. I’ll just say Scorsese’s new film is elegant and fluid, rather less grimy than Taxi Driver, and stocked with a mix of actor’s actors (Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer), cinema legends (Christopher Lee), and promising young talent in Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz, neither of whom annoyed me. Which is almost a miracle, since I don’t like kids that much, unless they are marinated in a sweet-and-tangy apricot glaze and baked at 350° for about 2 hours (or until golden brown).
Aside from the already renowned 3D cinematography, the most entertaining aspect of Hugo (based on the children’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick) is Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as the villainous but comedic station inspector, who gets the best lines in the film. I confess to not having followed his prior incarnations as Ali G or Borat, so I’m not sure if Cohen is a novelty act or a future Best Actor Oscar winner. After Hugo, though, I’m intrigued by the possibility of him portraying the late Freddie Mercury in the upcoming biopic.
If there is an upcoming biopic.
This week I’ve read that Cohen has all but signed on to play Mercury and that producer Graham King (who also helped bring Hugo to the screen) is ready to begin pre-production. I’ve also read that there’s no usable script and the whole concept is just a notion at this point. Maybe Killough can dig up some truth for us.
Biopics about entertainers can range from pretentious and comically inaccurate (Oliver Stone’s The Doors) to somewhat conventional but watchable (most of the others). In Mercury’s case, I hope the filmmakers avoid embellishment and let Freddie’s story tell itself. After all, this is a guy who was born as Farrokh Bulsara to Indian parents in Zanzibar and somehow grew up to become the world-famous lead singer of Queen, one of rock music’s most legendary acts, which alone is so unlikely as to merit being dramatized on film. But Freddie Mercury was much more than a talented vocalist.
I was taught by my college writing professors never to gush about your subject or make absolute declarations, but I’m going to play my “get out of jail free” card here and say that Mercury was and ever will be the greatest front man in rock history. No one held an audience in his palm like Freddie Mercury. His unbridled charisma and sensual energy was so great that guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon, and drummer Roger Taylor – all great musicians and songwriters themselves – merely had to focus on playing the correct notes while their singer totally owned the stage for two hours. Queen’s 1985 performance at Live Aid is the stuff of legend, yet if you watch the footage, the showmanship is all Freddie (with musical wizardry supplied by his band mates).
As a guitar player, I aspire to be Brian May (who, by the way, has a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, and not one of those fake honorary ones either). If I had written and performed the guitar solo for “Hammer to Fall” on the band’s Works album from 1984, I’d have chucked my axe in a wood chipper immediately afterward, because a guitar solo can’t get better than that. But any stage performer, be it musician, rapper, actor, or comedian, can learn something from watching Freddie Mercury, who transcended music. Redneck biker dudes who listen to southern fried rock love Queen. So do gay fashion designers and football jocks and stock brokers. My ten-year-old son has a poster of Freddie Mercury on his bedroom wall, despite his preference for hard rock and metal.
Freddie Mercury died of complications from A.I.D.S. on November 24, 1991. We rock-n-roll fans need to prepare ourselves for losing our heroes and legends, as these folks tend to live hard and die young. I’m not sure how shocked people were when Jim Morrison keeled over at age 27, given his appetite for drug and drink. And Jimi Hendrix, whose death was arguably preventable, might still have ended up in the morgue before too long for the same reasons Morrison did. But I feel a greater sense of loss at the death of Queen’s front man than I do any of the others, perhaps as a Beatles lover feels for John Lennon. Mercury was not murdered, but he was cruelly cut down by a mindless disease that cannot distinguish between a junkie and passionate entertainer living his life.
When I talk about the amorality of nature, this is what I mean. People tend to attribute malevolent will to illness, perhaps because making an enemy of it helps rally the fighting spirit in the sufferer. But a virus is not evil or willful. A virus doesn’t even know it exists, because it’s not a true living organism. Unfortunately for us sentient beings who are aware of ourselves, we don’t co-exist well with viruses. This one happened to kill Freddie Mercury before we figured out how to prevent its transmission, and the world is a lesser place for it.
When Queen’s penultimate studio album, the underappreciated The Miracle, was released in 1989, I found the lyrics to “Was it All Worth It,” in which Mercury ruminated over his life’s choices, to be odd. At the time I believed he was hinting at the end of Queen, not of his life. When their final album, the sedate and reflective Innuendo, was released in the beginning of 1991, music writers and fans were alarmed by his gaunt, frail appearance, fueling the obvious speculation. But his public confirmation of having the disease came just one day before his death.
If the biopic is made, a chameleon like Sacha Baron Cohen might be what is needed to inhabit the part, though we’ll have to see if he possesses the acting chops to find the inner Freddie. That and the singing. Audiences will know if he’s lip-synching to original recordings, which is a no-no in music biopics, but Mercury’s distinctive sound will be hard to copy. Perhaps Freddie’s voice doppelganger Marc Martel, whose youtube video cover of “Somebody to Love” went viral earlier this year, can step in to overdub some new renditions. It may take two people to play one guy when that one guy is Freddie Mercury.*
Marc Martel’s audition. So uncanny it’s chilling.
While this biopic may or may not be headed for pre-production, drummer Roger Taylor has promised to bring a “Queen Extravaganza” to U.S. shores next summer, according to the band’s official website. I’m not sure what he means by the word extravaganza, but I’m afraid, with a name like that, it will involve lasers and a pops orchestra and guest appearances by Justin Bieber and Celine Dion. Don’t do it, Roger! It sounds like a pile of Radio Ga Ga to me.
* Then again, it took Audrey Hepburn and Marni Nixon to play Eliza Doolittle, who isn’t even a real person. And you’re probably thinking to yourself, “I guess Baker never heard of Mitch Cohen and Kevin Kessler, the two guys who combined body and voice to portray the Toxic Avenger, New Jersey’s own radioactive superhero. Boy, that Baker is some kind of a chump.” Yeah, well, screw you pal, all right?