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Film Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018; Directed by Bryan Singer)

It’s extremely self-evident exactly why the Freddie Mercury and Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was such a thunderous box-office hit at the same time as it is undeniably clear why it is not, properly speaking, a good movie. Spearheaded by a brassy mirrorball-smash of a performance by Rami Malek as Mercury and featuring numerous spectacular and exhilirating cinematic re-creations of the English rock legends’ bravado live performances, Bohemian Rhapsody leaves you humming and buzzing as its credits roll. It’s a spirited and slavishly faithful tribute to Queen’s ambitious, dramatic music, which, after all, remains very popular, so why shouldn’t a movie about them be likewise popular?

But this is a film that never met a musical biopic convention it could resist locking onto like a rocket ship on its way to Mars, even if (especially if) those conventions inconveniently did not happen to apply to Queen’s career. Outside of its performance sequences (and even inside of them), it’s also a frequent technical fiasco: a queasy cinematographical palette from DP Newton Thomas Sigel, frightfully, distractingly over-busy editing from John Ottman (he was nominated for an Oscar for editing like this, in run-of-the-mill dialogue scenes, no less), and a glaring lack of vision and finish. This last flaw might have been predictable, given the erratic and contentious stewardship of original director Bryan Singer, who was fired by 20th Century Fox with weeks to go in principal photography over persistent absences and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (who isn’t allowed a directorial credit due to guild rules; he’s listed as an executive producer). Bohemian Rhapsody‘s success has been understood to be in spite of Singer, not because of him; at least one hopes so, given the litany of accusations of sexual misconduct made against him, which themselves did not rise to the level of disqualification from helming such a prominent studio release.

The extent to which any of these technical or behind-the-scenes criticisms will damage Bohemian Rhapsody, let alone matter to anyone watching it, will certainly vary. I, for one, was almost irrevocably lost to it when Mike Myers, buried under blotchy make-up, a permed wig, and an English accent as a fictionalized EMI record exec, directly references the unlikelihood of a scene like the iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” singalong-in-the-car sequence in Wayne’s World ever happening when arguing with the band about releasing the six-minute rock-operatic classic as a single. If I hadn’t been watching the movie in my living room, I would have walked out right then.

That’s the kind of nail-on-the-head in-joke that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay thinks is amusing (and that Myers always has), and those thought processes transfer to more serious dramatic elements of Bohemian Rhapsody. The script builds in a growing distance and then personal rupture between Mercury and his first partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton); while they did end their romantic involvement with each other when Mercury told her about his sexual orientation, they were close friends until the end of his life. The pre-third-act crisis that “breaks up” the band is precipitated by Mercury’s desire to make a solo album, which the other three band members treat as an arrogant betrayal; in truth, every Queen member but Mercury released a solo album before he did. The band’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 – widely considered to be the greatest single live performance of rock era, which we must by now get used to referring to definitively in the past tense – forms the climax of the film (it was re-created and filmed meticulously in its entirety, though two songs are cut from the final film), and is built up by the implication that it was their first show together in some time, when really they had released an album the year before and toured extensively just prior to Live Aid. Quibbles about historical accuracy can be judged to be particularly fruitless in terms of a cinematic biography of self-mythologizing rock stars, but these things add up and give an impression that Queen was something other than they were.

Who Freddie Mercury was, however, is the real focus of the non-musical-number scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody. He was an unlikely person to become rock history’s most obscenely outsized talent: the son of Indian Parsi Zoroastrians born in Zanzibar before emigrating to England, he was a sublimely gifted singer with perfect pitch, a (rumoured, never quite confirmed) four-octave range, and pure, swaggering on-stage panache. Identifying as bisexual though increasingly involved in the growing gay community (from which he contracted the AIDS that would claim his life), he was and is nonetheless accepted by a wide range of music fans who responded to his talent and his music, whatever they thought of his lifestyle. Bohemian Rhapsody suggests that behind the arrogant rock star swagger was profound self-doubt and self-loathing without a specific root, that he projected supreme self-confidence but never felt it. The film stumbles clumsily around Mercury’s sexuality and identity, but always retreats to a safe neutral position that it didn’t really matter, because he will, he will rock you. For those of LGBTQ identity who find inspiration and tragic pathos in Mercury’s blazing comet of a life, a position like this in a film from supposedly progressive Hollywood in 2018 smacks of an insult.

The film that treated Mercury’s sexuality with a bit more respect and nuance than Bohemian Rhapsody does would be a better film. But then, a better film would have found a way to balance the joy and the tragedy of Mercury’s life in and out of Queen. A better film have explored the giddy inventiveness of Queen’s recording, rather than quick-cutting from the working band selling their van to pay for studio time to swinging guitar amps and scattering coins on drumskins because someone randomly shouted out, “We’ve got to get experimental!”. A better film would explore the interpersonal dynamics of massively popular and rich rock stars and their managers and entourage without inventing conflicts and ruptures that didn’t happen and tell us nothing about Mercury or Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor as people (and Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t offer us much about Mercury’s bandmates, although Gwylim Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joe Mazzello labour away to give them personality that the script is uninterested in).

A better film, too, would have been able to find a consistent and potent dramatic and emotional equilibrium between the mass-participation delight of Queen’s live shows and the private, diminishing agony of Mercury’s slow health decline from AIDS. Bohemian Rhapsody does better with this than it perhaps ought to, given its other related limitations. Rami Malek’s Best Actor Oscar nomination is really for his impressive physical approximation of Freddie Mercury as a performer (the Academy is full of narcissists and therefore responds strongly to good impersonations of famous people like them), but he is an observant-enough actor to effectively sell the film’s link between the fear and uncertainty he feels due to his AIDS diagnosis and his closing Live Aid performative triumph.

Malek registers, almost imperceptively but entirely clearly, how the awareness of creeping mortality spurs Mercury on to ensuring his immortality. And damn it, despite itself, here at the end, when it matters, Bohemian Rhapsody works. Malek’s Mercury has fully reconciled with his bandmates and told them of his AIDS death sentence. He has found sufficient inner peace to seek out companionship from Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), the loving partner of his final years, while also having a place in his life for Mary. He has earned the approval of his conservative Parsi family (although his father’s proud regard is only finally earned by the “good deed” of playing Bob Geldof’s preeningly compromised African famine relief charity mega-concert, so okay, then).

With all of that held in mind, with those charged atoms pinging through the electrified firmament, Malek-as-Mercury’s delivery on the Live Aid stage at Wembley of the passionate piano verse that is the second movement of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with its melodramatic scenario of maternal entreaty, murder and death, and existential erasure, sees the film that shares the song’s name snap suddenly, unexpectedly into sharp and powerful focus. When he sings for a billion people “I don’t wanna die / I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”, his face reflected in the surface of the piano, I’ll be damned if it isn’t finally moving.

Maybe it’s folly scratching at the picayune inconsistencies and inaccuracies of Bohemian Rhapsody (though I’d argue its technical problems are a bit more major). Almost certainly, however, it’s folly to wish it to have been more subtle and nuanced. This is a Queen biopic, after all, and you do not rush into Queen’s bejazzled bosom in search of subtlety and nuance. You go there to be swaddled in smothering grandeur and boundless ornate ambition, to be swallowed whole by the bloated, sparkling beast and sleep cozily in its gold-encrusted bowels.

Queen gets a bit of posthumous flack for the reduction of some of its stadium anthems (“We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” primarily) to sports-arena fan-riling fodder, or for unintentionally birthing the half-feral stepchildren of 1980s cornball hair-metal, that absolute nadir of a half-century of popular music genres. But Queen was unquestionably greater than the parasitic worms that would feed themselves from its spent body. It’s hard to argue, though, that despite its popularity and flashes of quality, Bohemian Rhapsody is one such worm. But Queen also gets the bombastic, unsubtle, mass-market biopic homage that it arguable deserves (and with manager Jim Beach, played in the film by Tom Hollander, producing and with May and Taylor as executive producers, the film the keepers of its legacy asked for and oversaw). Maybe that’s a decent measure of balance, after all.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
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