‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Review

Rami Malek is astonishingly brilliant in Bohemian Rhapsody. The way he moves, the way he acts, the pathos he brings to the talent of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of innovative, beloved rock group (and one of my all-time favorite bands) Queen, is incomparably remarkable. In fact, Malek’s acting and the film’s use of Queen’s best songs are so astonishing, so tantalizing, and so toe-tappingly great that you almost forget how bad the rest of the movie actually is. I want to make it clear: Bohemian Rhapsody should not have worked. No film has had a harder time getting made, and the struggle to bring it to the big screen shows in every frame presented. And in a lot of ways, the film doesn’t work, or at least can’t recover from its handicapping to avoid disaster. However, between the music and the performance, it almost feels like it does – and, quite frankly, that in and of itself is something of a tiny miracle.

In 1970, Farrokh Bulsara (Malek) manages to talk his way into a local college band named Smile, fronted by guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bass player John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), thanks to his undeniable stage presence and a strange dental abnormality that makes his vocal range wider and stronger than most other singers. With the band renamed Queen, and Farrokh adopting the stage name Freddie Mercury, the band finds themselves climbing the charts, thanks to their ability to adopt any musical genre – and Freddie’s onstage shenanigans. However, as their careers grow, Freddie finds himself struggling with a variety of issues, including his flamboyant bisexuality, his crippling loneliness his toxic relationship with personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), and a coming diagnosis that would change his life forever (albeit revealed much earlier than in real life, in order to manipulate audiences).

In order to properly understand Bohemian Rhapsody as a film, I need to first fill you in on the backstory. The story of Queen was first pitched as a film over ten years ago, with an all-star cast and crew lined up, including Sacha Baron Cohen playing Freddie Mercury and The Crown scribe Peter Morgan writing the script. The choice of Cohen was much lauded, as the two shared a striking resemblance. However, as projects often do, the film fell apart. Cohen later returned to the project in 2013, and here’s where things get interesting: upon his return, Cohen discovered that the band – who were important producers on the project – wanted to tell the life of Freddie Mercury, a flamboyant, troubled man with a series of issues, as a PG family romp. They also wanted Freddie to die within the first hour, so that the rest of the story would be about the band coming together after his death to become a superstar force once again. Appalled, Cohen quit. May and Taylor eventually continued with the project, only to have three major directors openly and aggressively turn them down – Morgan, David Fincher, and Tom Hooper of Les Misérables. They did, however, find a replacement for Cohen in Ben Whishaw, of James Bond and Paddington fame, as well as actor-turned-indie director Dexter Fletcher, but Fletcher found himself fired and Whishaw resigned due to the terrible script. So the band hired Oscar-nominated hack Anthony McCarten (who butchered The Theory of Everything and wrote the worst lines in Darkest Hour), whom they knew would listen to their input, hired up-and-comer Rami Malek, and snagged A-list director Bryan Singer to direct. And that’s when this film finally took off. Of course, filming itself was plagued with issues. Singer was constantly drunk on set, and threw chairs at Malek constantly. Malek eventually went to the producers and told them it was either him or Singer; someone was leaving. Luckily, the studio didn’t have to make that choice: Singer fled the set halfway through filming, due to the #MeToo movement and the very-public reveal that Singer (a friend and mentor to Kevin Spacey, which should tell you where this sentence is going), had been hosting ravenous parties focused on underaged boys wanting to become actors (there’s literally a whole documentary about his behavior). Panicking, the producers managed to hire Fletcher, whom had proven himself as a capable director in the past four years, to come in and reshoot and finish whatever material remained of Bohemian Rhapsody. Fletcher did a pretty decent job, and earned the Elton John biopic for his efforts. However, Singer emerged from hiding and successfully sued the film, having Fletcher’s name removed from the credits and taking full responsibility for the film. And that is what this film had to go through to make it to the big screen.

To me, the key factoid in that previous paragraph is the band’s vision of this film. If this film reveals anything at all, it’s that the living members of Queen really hate Freddie Mercury, or at least the public’s perception of Mercury. While they do give him credit for his voice and his writing of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” almost every chance they get, they take the opportunity to cut him down to siz. Time and time again, the film shows Freddie showing up late to rehearsals just after other band members write a “greatest hit” (the most egregious is when they portray Freddie as completely baffled by “We Will Rock You” after missing May’s pitch to the group, despite the fact that Mercury wrote the song’s second half, “We Are The Champions”), rarely contributing to the band’s success, and not even bothering to learn the words to his own songs (which, in reality, is part of the charm of Mercury as a performer, but of course a film that’s out to get him wants to paint that as a bad thing). Now, whenever a film is produced by the living members of the band, there’s always a bit of a hiccup – the living members will always want to portray themselves as good and proper, while the brunt of the fictionalization and the partying will fall to the deceased members. We saw this in 2015 with Straight Outta Compton. But the difference between Straight Outta Compton and Rhapsody is that the members of NWA did have credit to share. They gave Eazy-E the complicated backstory because that’s who he was – the group’s frontman, while Cube was the lyricist and Dre was the musical genius. With Queen, it is pretty common knowledge that Mercury was the genius of the group. Not only was he responsible for the experimental, better songs, but if you ask any musical expert about the talents of the band members, Mercury will always list in the top ten singers in musical history, while Taylor, Deacon, and May will struggle to rank. This is a clear, and quite frankly, crass attempt to reclaim the narrative. Queen almost desires to knock Freddie down a few pegs in order to spread the wealth, going so far as to have Freddie literally list in front of the group how they are technically more important than him in three scenes, perhaps as punishment for Freddie’s attempt to go solo (note: Freddie was actually the third band member to go solo, not the first and only member as depicted in the film; nor did it break up the band, who never actually broke up).

And I haven’t even touched on the queerness of it all: as open and as connected as the band may be to the LGBTQ community, there is a very strong argument to be made in this film that the living members of Queen were kinda skeeved out by the whole “gay” thing. It’s pretty striking that Roger, John, and Brian are never seen partying, drinking, or engaging in any form of band-esque activities, while Freddie is often frowned upon for his bacchanal extracurriculars. Instead, they go home to their wives, while Freddie is seduced by Paul and the homosexual lifestyle. By connecting Freddie’s sexuality to the partying, and inevitably his diagnosis, while the rest of the band is never depicted having fun, the line is subtextually drawn that Freddie’s sexuality caused his “immorality” and death. I’m frankly shocked the openly gay Singer allowed the film to have such an undercurrent – he’s never shied away from it in the past. And then there’s the most controversial scene: Freddie’s coming out to Mary. It is common knowledge to anyone with a history of Freddie Mercury that he was bisexual, loving anyone and everyone, although his preference was mainly men. Which is why it came as a shock to me, a self-proclaimed Mercury lover, when the film had him admit this fact to Mary, his fiancé, the person the film paints him as closest to, and she tells him, “Nah, you’re just gay.” And he agrees with this. Personally, I find this reveal heinous as a rewrite of Mercury’s sexuality. Surprisingly, I’ve heard from several bi friends that this scene rings true in terms of the way family and friends handle bisexual coming-out, and their shortcomings in that area, so perhaps this is just a me thing. But I can’t shake the feeling that this scene just doesn’t sit well – not in terms of the story, and not in terms of Freddie’s legacy.

Still, the band’s portrayal is the least of the film’s issues. Andrew McCarten’s script is so egregiously awful that, at times, Bohemian Rhapsody is indiscernible from the 2007 spoof musical biopic (and criminally underrated) Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. That’s right: Bohemian Rhapsody is so desperate to use every biopic cliché that it adds them into the script whether it actually fits or not. A disapproving father whom the protagonist spends the entire film trying to please (aka “The wrong kid died”)? Throw it in! A first performance where the untrained singer wins over the crowd and accidentally creates their signature move? Freddie breaks the microphone three seconds into performing, which creates the signature extended microphone that he carries around. A sequence where a manager uses a completely ridiculous prop/plot point to make something seem even cooler? There’s a scene where Tom Hollander’s Jim Beach, just before Live Aid, secretly removes a piece of tape on the sound board labeled “Do not go past 11” and turns the volume up for maximum impact, as if this wouldn’t blow out the speakers, be noticed immediately, or had any impact on the climactic moment to come. Hell, they even change history to achieve the infamous Walk Hard ending. For dramatic effect, the film moves Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis up a full three years so that the Live Aid concert will have greater impact (as if delivering the greatest performance in musical history wasn’t dramatic enough), and allows them to steal the famous Walk Hard ending caption: “Freddie Mercury died three minutes after this concert.” Honestly, the fact that a film could steal so much from a spoof film is baffling to me.

And that’s not the only thing that Rhapsody stole from the biopic realm. While I concede that Queen was one of the greatest recording groups of all time (again, I reiterate: this is one of my all-time favorite bands), the film tries so desperately to portray them as innovative recorders that it literally copies recording scenes from Love and Mercy, as if to imply that Queen’s early albums through A Night at the Opera are on par with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds (it’s a good album, but this is not true by any stretch of the imagination). And when I say stolen, I mean these scenes are nearly stolen shot for shot. It’s rather remarkable. Oh, and did I mention the scenes that aren’t stolen from those sequences are lifted from 80s family sitcoms? There’s literally a scene where the band tries to fit into a recording booth and wackily fall over, as if this were Fuller House and these are Jesse and the Rippers, not Queen. Things get far worse as the film goes on, as there are several stock sequences that Rhapsody somehow makes more bafflingly insane. When Freddie Mercury first pitches “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he saunters into producer Ray Foster’s (Mike Myers, which we’ll get to in a minute) office, puts a record on, and immediately cues up the Habanera from Carmen, only for Foster to declare, “What is that?” Mercury replies, “It’s called opera.” To reiterate, the film features a sequence where Freddie Mercury has to explain opera to a record producer. Later, when Freddie comes out of the closet, he spins around to reveal his new mustache and says, to the camera, “What do you think, darling?” Roger Taylor, whom he’s speaking to, replies, “Uh…gayer?” even though Freddie is speaking about his new house. These are scenes that are appearing in a very serious drama in the year 2018. Still, I’d take silly over appalling any day of the week, as is the case with the disgusting uses of “Under Pressure” (moved earlier in history so Freddie can dramatically spite Paul, Freddie’s gay devil on the shoulder) and “Who Wants To Live Forever,” which the film implies was written about Freddie’s HIV diagnosis and not Brian May’s ode to his favorite movie, Highlander (true story). By placing the song at this time in history, the implication is clearly there, even if Singer never goes as far as to say it outright.

I’ve said a lot about the things that bothered me about this film, and that’s because there’s a lot that annoys me. However, it would be unfair to completely write this film off, especially because there is a lot to like here. One thing I like in particular is the way that this film is put together, in terms of the concert sequences, and in particular the Live Aid sequence. Now, sure, the footage from Live Aid is readily available, and pretty decent in regards to Freddie’s showmanship and the whole “Note Heard Round The World.” However, Fletcher (Note: I will only ever refer to the good scenes in this film as directed by Fletcher. Singer is responsible for the bad ones. This is how my conscience will forgive me) has a way of shooting these sequences that is truly breathtaking. There’s a long tracking shot that dives underneath piano legs and past the performers to give the audience a full view of the performance, and the camera edits and swoops in to show us both the size of the audience and the precise movements of Freddie’s improvisations on the stage. It’s oftentimes breathtaking to watch. And while the montages of Queen performances are literally shot-for-shot from Walk Hard, Fletcher times them to the music and shoots them with such panache that the scenes still work effectively – clichés are only bad if they don’t feel fresh. Of course, it does help that Queen’s music is so toe-tappingly catchy that you can’t help but feel enthused whenever a new song comes on. I love the use of music and editing in this film, but let’s not kid ourselves – the music here is a shiny object to dangle in front of the audience in order to distract them from the nonsense happening elsewhere. Still, I can’t be mad at any film that uses a Queen song. However, if there’s one thing that makes this film sing (I’m sorry), it’s Rami Malek. I cannot stress enough how great Malek is in this movie. And I don’t mean in just his ability to mimic Mercury’s ability to strut, improvise, thrust, and sing (although the band tried to pretend that Malek did his own singing, which…ok). Malek manages to dive deep into Mercury’s soul to find a sense of loneliness, isolation, and genius. As good as he is onstage, some of my favorite moments come in the quiet moments he shares with his father and with Mary (Lucy Boynton). The scene where Freddie comes out, as much as it irked me, is really a powerful moment from the young actor, and my favorite moment of the film comes when Freddie calls Mary late one night and flashes his lamp to her – it’s a quiet moment of yearning, of depression, and of a man on top of the world trying to connect with the only person who truly understands him. He even makes insanely dumb lines like, “I sing well because I have extra incisors in my mouth. More mouth space means more range” (I fact checked this with my brother, who sings opera, and discovered this dumb-sounding fact is actually true, so I’ll cut them some slack) sound almost poetic. Make no mistake: Malek’s performance is worthy of discussion alongside the all-time greats.

As for the rest of the performances, they range from “fine” to “Well, that’s a thing.” Gwilym Lee’s Brian has nothing to do other than comment on the size of his own hair, but I blame the real Brian May for that, and not the actor. Ditto for Joe Mazzello – John Deacon is so forgettable as a member of the band I honestly can remember more of the Spinal Tap drummers than I can of him. Ben Hardy makes the most of his role as Roger Taylor, and while he is certainly more memorable than any of his other band mates, that’s not always a good thing – the film somehow tries to paint Taylor as saintly and always right despite the fact that in both the film and real life, Taylor was constantly annoyed by how “gay” Mercury wanted to make the music. It’s a weird balance to walk, and I’ll give Hardy credit for trying. Amongst the managers, I thought Tom Hollander and Aiden Gillen did admirable jobs, while Leech’s Prenter veers into stereotype to often for the actor to have any chance at a meaningful performance. In terms of Freddie’s family, Ace Bhatti and Meneka Das make the most out of pretty clichéd parts as Freddie’s parents, while Aaron McCusker’s Jim Hutton (the love of Freddie’s life) is ultimately forgettable due to his horrifically underwritten role. Only Lucy Boynton emerges unscathed, thanks to her ability to imbibe the role with heart, soul, verve, and likability – many of Malek’s best moments come when he has her to play off of. And then there’s Myers. Yes, Mike Myers is in this movie. Yes, he plays Ray Foster, the band’s record producer. And yes, he is only cast in this role so he can make a Wayne’s World reference. That is not a joke; Mike Myers was cast in the Queen biopic solely to yell at the band, “I know teens, and no teen will ever be driving in the car banging their heads to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’” I mean, that’s just so dumb I can’t tell if I love it or hate it. Outside of the stuntiness of it all, I guess that Myers does a decent enough job. I’m just shocked that any of that happened to begin with.

Rami Malek and the music of Queen are so good, it almost tricks you into thinking this is a good movie. On paper, it should be – the performance is great, the editing is good, there’s a lot of cool stuff going on here, etc. However, there’s just too much baggage for it to ever truly succeed, both onstage and off. The band appears to be too greedy to give credit where it’s due, the film itself is too dependent on clichés and grudges to get out of its own way, and the accuracy is just too far off to ever be respectable as a biographical picture. Freddie Mercury deserves better, as an artist and as a tortured soul, and while Malek tries to give it to him, I’m not sure anyone else involved with this film cares enough to do so.

C+

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