By: BabyRuth (Three Beers) –
After years of delays, false-starts, and a troubled production (to say the least), Bohemian Rhapsody is finally here.
Directed mostly by Bryan Singer (he was fired near the end of filming and replaced with Dexter Fletcher, who does not receive a credit), the film covers the rise of the iconic band Queen and the life of Freddie Mercury, arguably the greatest frontman of all time.
The subject of a biopic can make or break the entire film. When it was announced that original star Sacha Baron Cohen, who seemed to be the perfect choice, was no longer involved in the project and replaced with Rami Malek, many were understandably nervous and possibly at least somewhat disappointed (myself included).
Well rest assured, Malek’s performance is every bit as good as you’ve likely heard by now. This is no imitation, it is an embodiment and it’s incredible. Malek nails every nuance of Mercury’s swagger and godlike stage presence, his larger-than-life personality, and his less publicly-seen vulnerability with equal ease and commitment, never coming off as a caricature (which would have been easy to do, especially with those dental prosthetics). In other words, the man is coming for his Oscar.
Malek’s Mercury is such a showstopper that supporting cast is forced into his shadow, though each casting choice is inspired, particularly Gwilyn Lee, who’s resemblance to Brian May is spooky. Ben Hardy’s Roger Taylor is pretty uncanny too. Oh yeah, if Joseph Mazzello (as bassist John Deacon) looks familiar, it’s because he was little Tim in Jurassic Park. More needs to be said about Lucy Boynton as Mercury’s lover turned soulmate Mary Austin. As she did in the wonderful Sing Street, Boynton gives an understated, layered performance that is so much more than the cliché love interest/muse and her chemistry with Malek is perfect.
Might also have something to do with the fact that two are a real-life couple – something I just learned and I’m freaking out a little bit about it.
Keep an eye out for some fun Easter egg cameos from current Queen singer Adam Lambert as Mercury’s truck-stop hook-up and an unrecognizable Mike Meyers as record executive Ray Foster who doubts whether “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the kind of song that will have kids “banging their heads in their cars.” (Yeah, a bit on the nose, but it got a laugh out of me.)
Much of the early criticism (like so early, it was before the movie even came out) was that Mercury’s sexuality would be downplayed and even “straight-washed” due to the PG-13 rating and the hetero Freddie-Mary scenes heavily featured in trailer. While the rating does prevent things from getting too graphic (one of the reasons Cohen reportedly dropped out), Mercury’s bi-sexuality is addressed and is a major theme of the film. Personally, I can see both sides of the “sanitizing” controversy. On the one hand, Mercury certainly didn’t lead a PG-13 life, and a grittier recounting of these events would have made for a more realistic depiction. On the other, alluding to, rather than outright showing these things opens the film to a larger audience (as we learned with the horror genre). So, it all really depends on what the viewer is hoping to see. Really, there are larger problems with this film than how far it goes with the whole sex and drugs part of the formula (which we will get to in a bit).
Regarding the “rock-n-roll” portion of the equation, though, Bohemian Rhapsody gets it oh so right. The live performances are the saving grace of the film. Well-staged, filmed, and acted, using a combination of Queen’s audio, plus a blend of Malek’s and Marc Martel’s (of the Queen tribute Queen Extravaganza) vocals, each musical scene steps it up until it finally reaches the ultimate crescendo: the 1985 Live Aid set, which frames the film.
Regarded by many as the single greatest live rock performance of all time (if you haven’t seen it, please do yourself a favor and watch it right here), the Live Aid set is recreated in exquisite detail and is definitely the best part of the movie. While condensed (“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “We Will Rock You” are the victims, though there are plans for an extended version of the film featuring the Live Aid set in its entirety), it still takes up a good fifteen minutes and doesn’t feel rushed. There are some incredible visuals that take the viewer onstage with the band (one shot in particular is jawdropping- you’ll know it when you see it), as well as give them the immersive feeling of being in the crowd. The combination of the visuals and the music is intense and emotional and I’m not ashamed to admit I bawled my eyes out just as I did the first time I watched the real performance (and every time since).
The power of live music is like nothing else, whether it be a rock concert, a Broadway show, an opera- whatever a person may be into. When everything comes together just right, it has the ability to unite an audience into one collective unit with every single person feeling the same thing. It’s euphoric. Queen’s set at Live Aid was that times a million and nothing short of magical. And Freddie was the wizard, holding 72,000 people (plus millions watching the live broadcast) in the palm of his hand, transporting them to another place. The film captures all of this perfectly (though it could have done without the cornball cuts of the soundboard literally going to 11 and the telethon phones ringing off the hook) and along with Malek’s portrayal is reason enough to catch this one on the big screen.
Okay, that’s the good, and it’s very, very good. But whew boy, are there issues with this film.
Bohemian Rhapsody is not strictly a Freddie Mercury biopic. It attempts to cover everything: Mercury’s early life, the formation of Queen, their rise to the top, how some of their biggest songs came to be, internal band conflicts, disputes with managers/label/press, Mercury’s romantic relationships and sexuality, and his AIDS diagnosis and death. Even with a runtime of 2:14, that’s a hell of a lot to cover, especially with leaving room for multiple musical sequences. So as one would imagine, many of these things are rushed through, glossed over, and over-simplified resulting in pacing issues and a lack of focus on any one particular thing.
The first fifteen minutes are especially head-whirling. The film opens backstage at the Live Aid show, with the band getting ready to take the stage. It then flashes back to a young Farrokh Bulsara (aka pre-Freddie Mercury) working as a baggage handler – CUT TO: his family life with his unaccepting (Why? No Time!) father – CUT TO: meeting the other members of Queen (then called Smile) who as luck would have it, need a new singer – CUT TO: meeting/courting Mary – CUT TO: Okay, now the band is performing. And recording. And appearing on TV. And boom, famous. It’s so rushed and jarring.
It follows every beat of a generic biopic (like one of those VH1 was putting out on a weekly basis for awhile about ten years ago) but on fast-forward. But then it doesn’t even contain the single most important moment of a musical band biopic: when they become famous. You know, their first big show, or hearing their song on the radio the first time, or getting signed. That’s the best part and we’re robbed of it. It’s just, one minute they’re unknown, then they’re famous the next. It makes becoming a successful band look like the easiest thing in the world to do.
“Great news! We’ve got a number one hit!”
“But we’re still recording it, how could that be?”
There are ways to cinematically depict a sequence of events and passage of time in a clever and stylish way, but this film has no interest in that. Scenes are just chopped together haphazardly until it finally reaches a point where everything, thankfully, slows down.
That is until the end, when in what appears to be the span of one day, Mercury manages to track down and woo his future partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), come out to his family, tell his bandmates about his AIDS diagnosis, and then play the set of his life at Live Aid. That’s some day!
Yes, I said that he tells the other members about his diagnosis right before they play Live Aid. But wait, wasn’t Live Aid in 1985 and it’s been well-documented that Mercury wasn’t diagnosed until 1987? (He went public with his illness on November 23, 1991. He died the very next day.)
Look, taking artistic license is one thing. It isn’t unheard of to change or embellish a few little details for dramatic effect and time constraints. Things like when certain songs were recorded or the circumstances of how people really met (both of which happen in this film). But there are two major plot points that are so completely fictionalized, it’s nearly an insult to Queen fans and even to Freddie himself.
The first, as mentioned, is the choice to move up the date of Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis so that it neatly fits into the film’s Live Aid frame and gives the climactic moment even more weight. Yeah, we get a beautifully acted, heartstring-tugging scene between the band, and some of their famous lyrics hold much more emotional resonance if we imagine Mercury is reflecting on his mortality while performing them, but at what expense? Of course it’s quite possible he actually was tested and found out earlier than has been reported. (If any of the Queen members would like to confirm that, now would certainly be the time.)
The second is possibly even worse, as it doesn’t misrepresent the actual timeline of events but is 100% completely fabricated. Apparently screenwriter Anthony McCarten was using Rock Band Movie Mad Libs and got to the part where the singer decides he’s just too big for the band and wants to go solo, only to hit rock bottom, and then realize he needs his “family” and crawls back to them with his tail between his legs. Only problem? It never happened. In reality, both Brian May and Roger Taylor recorded solo albums long before Freddie did and the band never officially broke up. In fact, Queen released an album (1984’s The Works) and toured, playing the last show of the tour a mere two months before the Live Aid appearance (which serves as the catalyst for that out-of-control Freddie finally seeing the error of his ways).
What’s most disappointing about all this is that Brian May and Roger Taylor had creative control over this film (John Deacon was not involved), so apparently, they were just fine with these fact-skewing or rather fact-screwing (let’s call it what it is). In an interview shortly after Mercury’s death, Taylor said he was “absolutely bound to stick up for [Mercury], because he can’t stick up for himself anymore.” It’s too bad he can’t now.
The story of Queen is one that didn’t need rewritten for dramatic effect. It’s compelling enough on its own without distorting the facts.
While the execution is a bit of a mess and the story is often more fantasy than real-life, Bohemian Rhapsody’s thrilling musical sequences and Rami Malek’s brilliant portrayal of Freddie Mercury keep it entertaining enough not to skip. But it could have been so much more.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) Drinking Game
Suggested Drink: A glass of Moet (preferably housed in a pretty cabinet)
Take a Drink: whenever the sunglasses are prominently featured
Take a Drink: every time one of Freddie’s cats is shown (The cats! I forgot to mention the cats earlier! They are the third best thing about this movie!)
Take a Drink: whenever one of the other members of Queen disapproves of Freddie’s behavior
Take a Drink: for every pop-up graphic
Take a Drink: whenever opera is played
Take a Drink: every time you see a reflection
Do a Shot: for every “Galileo” Do another: for every order of “higher!” during the recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody”