REVIEW: Bohemian Rhapsody [2018]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 134 minutes | Release Date: October 24th, 2018 (UK)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Director(s): Bryan Singer
Writer(s): Anthony McCarten / Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan (story)

“Good thoughts. Good words. Good deeds.”

There’s the story of Freddie Mercury and the story of his band Queen. One deals with complicated topics spanning fractured identity, the excess of fame, and AIDS while the other is apparently straightforward with little conflict besides creative squabbles that get ironed out before the argument is even finished. Is it weird then that Hollywood would deliver the latter? The sad truth is unfortunately no. Going the safe route to make sure all parties involved are happy about their depiction is exactly what Hollywood strives to achieve. Why give audiences a drama with resonant import and nuance when you can supply them rousing rock anthems pulled from the air by genius? Why risk exposing success’ darkness when a happy (if bittersweet) ending delivers the cheers you so covet?

I remember the hubbub when Sacha Baron Cohen left this project’s previous iteration due to creative differences. He wanted to portray Mercury as legend with a warts and all biopic driving to the heart of who he was as a man, sexual creature, and artist. The late singer’s bandmates had other ideas, though. They wanted to lend their names and history to a movie that expanded its spotlight to the full quartet—one that would show the world their resiliency to overcome the struggles of having someone so flamboyantly incendiary as their leader. So Brian May, Roger Taylor, and manager/lawyer Jim Beach produced Bohemian Rhapsody onto that more sanitized path towards glorification and anthemic immortalization instead with screenwriter Anthony McCarten revealing how great they were at supporting their friend.

I’m not implying they weren’t. I’m not a Queen biographer and thus have no clue how their two-decades-long relationship truly played out. All I’m saying is that the version of events McCarten and director Bryan Singer (or should I say Dexter Fletcher considering he finished the job uncredited once Singer was fired for his now universally-known propensity for unprofessional behavior on-set) is so hunky-dory that it’s almost devoid of conflict. Whether it’s Mercury (Rami Malek) serendipitously working up the courage to talk to May (Gwilym Lee) and Taylor (Ben Hardy) the exact moment their former lead singer quit or Mercury’s hostile yet charming run-ins with record executive Ray Foster (an unrecognizable Mike Myers) being met by smiles and support from the guys, everything works out as a rule.

It’s shoved down our throats that Queen is a “family.” They democratically divide writing credits, let everyone craft their own songs for the group to play, and have an uncanny loyalty to back any play Mercury impetuously makes because they live by the creed: “What do we have to lose?” It’s borderline fantastical the way their frustrations are aired as though in a vacuum with tempers flaring just high enough for one to have an epiphany that will ultimately calm the others down to record another chart-topping hit. And there’s so little process shown that we wouldn’t be blamed for believing whole verses and melodies were instantly brought to life thanks to the composer being possessed by God. Their success was therefore fated and achieved via minimal effort.

So we don’t even get drama from the art. Instead it’s funny montages of Mercury, May, Taylor, and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) making weird sounds on a whim in the studio, inspiring locales and instruments destined for platinum sales, and bass riffs that literally stop everyone in his tracks to let the music guide them. Bohemian Rhapsody is thus a fairy tale above anything else. It shows what teamwork can accomplish and how Mercury’s celebrity almost ruined them before his eyes were reopened to the “greater good.” There’s this weird cultish personality to the whole—an “all for one and one for all” mantra placing blame for friction onto Mercury’s shoulders while making it seem his individuality must be neutered in order to put things back to normal.

For a movie with the potential to show how “the misfits” found their way to give other “misfits” a voice, this truth is most damaging. By all accounts Mercury’s homosexuality is rendered as evil. An evil his family, wife (Lucy Boynton‘s Mary Austin), and bandmates see past to give him their undying support, but an evil nonetheless. The villain ends up being his opportunistic boyfriend Paul (Allen Leech). The wedge separating Freddie from the rest is his penchant for drugs, sex, and parties while May, Taylor, and Deacon play choir boys silently judging him while going home with their wives to monogamous existences untainted by notoriety. Because Mercury’s sexuality is taken at face value without any depth, it gets lumped in with the substance abuse as a flaw.

I don’t think this was intentional, but instead the regrettable by-product of wanting to focus beyond the topic worthy of our attention: Mercury himself. Rather than let Freddie have his demons and fight to survive long enough for the show-stopping reenactment of Queen’s Live-Aid set (this final sequence is by far the best of the film), he becomes the demon. His fire is revealed as both the energy igniting their experimentation with genres to transcend demographics and the poison empowering ego to forget the deep love they share. It’s weird, though, because Mercury is still the star. The others disappear upon him going solo until he tracks them down. Freddie is therefore simultaneously Queen’s salvation and destruction. We’re to hold him as paramount but never deride his brothers-in-arms.

That leaves us in a purgatory of utter disinterest. We can’t invest in Mercury’s personal drama because the film holds the band at a higher value and it can’t survive his personal drama. Bohemian Rhapsody desperately wants us to hope the guys get back together not because of what it would mean to Freddie, but because that’s what its happy ending is. So his revelatory cementation of identity becomes less profound than a necessary stepping-stone towards reconciliation. The endgame isn’t confidence, but camaraderie. Despite Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) entering the fray as a voice of reason to tell Freddie to learn to love himself, the film usurps that cathartic goal by making its success about the other characters congratulating him. Rather than freedom, he receives approval.

This is devastating because Mercury’s sexuality is transformed into a prop for everyone else’s sainthood. It’s made even sadder because Malek delivers a fantastic performance that deserves better. An actor known for quietly subdued roles, he wields Freddie’s boisterous, larger-than-life persona with aplomb while lending pathos to his isolation and fear. The other actors are great too (especially Boynton and Lee) and the music stellar (of course). But how the latter is presented outside of concert snippets proves clumsy and generic with music video sensibilities and over-done animations. This shows the filmmakers are too interested in providing a good time to deliver a great movie. And by making Mercury’s identity issues a band detail instead of his own defining feature, it might even be a bad one.


photography:
[1] L-R: Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Joe Mazzello (John Deacon), and Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey; TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[2] Gwilym Lee (Brian May) and Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[3] L-R: Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), and Joe Mazzello (John Deacon) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox; TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

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