Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Dir: Bryan Singer (and Dexter Fletcher)
I don’t quite know what to think of this film, partly because it doesn’t quite know what to think of itself. It’s a Queen-produced biopic that doesn’t want to lose the rest of the band under the overwhelming weight of the obvious lead.
A musical biopic about the British rock band Queen and lead singer Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek ‘Mr Robot’), following the band and specifically as it pertains to Mercury from his joining the band up to their famous set at Live Aid in 1985.
This film will satisfy many, it’s considered somewhat overdue and is welcomed as the long-awaited Queen biopic for those who have wanted it, and will prove enjoyable to many who are fans of the music of Queen though never knew a whole lot about the history of the band. Ultimately though, it’s not completely satisfying.
It’s not exactly a Freddie Mercury biopic, it does try to be a more complete story of Queen, though it only really covers the band through the life of Mercury so feels limited, like they have nothing interesting without him. In exactly the same way he was the frontman of the band and drew all the attention, Mercury is the frontman of the story, so even though there are other members, all the focus goes on him and his more interesting private life.
This movie has some tough moments, there are unavoidable dark elements to the story, though for me it never felt particularly searching or hard-hitting, trepidly paddling in the necessary thematic elements but never mustering the courage to delve deeply into them. I understand the desire to retain the backing of the remaining members of Queen, but them serving as producers does compromise the ability to tell the stories with full freedom. Ideally, they can attest to what happened or what was said, give unrivaled input to events, but they have no distance from it other than time, so will cast themselves and the band as a whole in an overwhelmingly favorable light. Indeed, rather than unparalleled accuracy, there is an overabundance of artistic licence, with chronology, events, and details all hugely adjusted for cinematic effect.
This route taken by the production did lead to some issues. Sacha Baron Cohen was at one point considered for the lead role (though it has been disputed that he was ever officially attached) and I can see how he would have looked uncannily perfect. His interest in taking some of the more outlandish rumors and tales of Queen’s heyday was reportedly the reason he left the project, as he said that the band members resisted that direction. One of the most famous stories, that they threw a party complete with dwarves with plates of cocaine strapped to their heads wandering around is not shown, but there is a line, just one, where Freddie asks for a cornucopia of characters to be invited to a party, including Dwarves. It’s a nice little nod to that legend, though falling far short of showing the extent of their rockstar reveries. Parties are shown though they feel incredibly tame, as a PG13 movie warrants. Undoubtedly the true ‘full’ story would be more R rated. Other things are also alluded to, including infidelity, though included as a cursory semblance of honesty.
Live Aid is brilliantly reenacted but the set should have been included in its entirety, which was filmed and is an extra on the Blu-Ray. As edited in the film it runs for about 15 minutes rather than the full 20 (21 with bowing), so it’s not the biggest cut but for the sake of 5 minutes they could have better captured the exact pacing and every moment of that famous performance, the event the film has been leading up to from the opening.
The soundtrack is excellent, it’s a Queen biopic, that’s pretty much a given. It hardly features any music that isn’t theirs. Every hit is featured, you could release the OST and it would be almost identical to their Greatest Hits album. We get accounts of how many of these songs came into existence, though I doubt very much the overly simplified and narrative-friendly version. One key example is that ‘We Will Rock You’ is shown as being written in the ’80s when it was actually released in the ’70s, why? No idea, no good reason. That then makes me have to question if it really was conceived as a song that the audience could get involved in (as they do, it’s still a superb song for that) or if that too has been played about with for the sake of the film.
Rami Malek is pretty good, he does resemble Mercury a fair bit, helped by some prosthetic teeth, though he never looks fully comfortable with them as if they were his own. His depiction of Freddie Mercury goes just past the threshold of impersonation, bringing a little to the role, though there’s very little room for him to add to it. Don’t feel we get the dichotomy of personal to professional life quite as starkly as those who knew him have stated it was, quiet at home, outgoing on stage. It’s there but the line is blurred.
The band members are very good, though I doubt they’re fully accurate I do like their characters as presented, which I suppose is unsurprising. Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy do look very convincing as younger May and Taylor. Mercury’s lifelong companion Mary Austin played by Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) is also excellent and has the opportunity to be one of the more interesting characters in the film, partly as less is known about her and the relationship she had with Freddie Mercury was understandably complicated. I’m not sure the film explores it to completion, there’s room for more to explore there, though what we do have is interesting and the two have great on-screen chemistry, now apparent as they have become an off-screen couple too.
Editor, John Ottman, also served as the composer, entrusted the dual key roles as a trusted frequent collaborator with Bryan Singer. While the score goes almost entirely unnoticed, completely eclipsed by the fantastic songs, the editing stands out, though often not for the right reasons. There are lots of creative and stylistic bits of editing and while some do work, most feel a little dated and at times cheap. I have seen a lot of criticism for the film’s editing, especially in recent weeks in light of it gaining a nomination for that aspect of the production at the Oscars. It was really hard for me to put that out of my mind, particularly as I come from a background of editing, as it had been pointed out to me in advance. There are lots of cuts, many angles used even in one scene. Often the story is not given chance to breathe, conversations and events are quickly cut together from so many clever angles that it detracts from what’s being said or done. It works fine when we’re getting the disjointed nature of recording the famous song Bohemian Rhapsody, but when it’s in the case of a conversation between characters it’s not needed, just to pull back a touch, frame characters more generously, then let the dialogue do more of the work would be a nicer way. Another moment where it stood out to me is where effects are used in an attempt to heighten the effect of an intense press conference, making it feel discombobulating, yes, but distractingly so, when just the force of the questions and some well-cut shots would have had a similar effect.
The film gives into all the musical biopic clichés so much that it doesn’t feel convincing. I found it hard to completely settle into watching the film, it was like when someone is telling you an anecdote but you know they’re exaggerating or changing it to make it more interesting, funny, or cover over their own mistakes, you listen but never accept the account, constantly weighing up which parts you judge to be true and where you know there’s something not quite right. Now, imagine how your patience in listening to that story would be tested if it went on for two hours. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten has garnered praise for ‘The Theory of Everything’ and also wrote last year’s ‘Darkest Hour’ which I wasn’t hugely impressed by. Ultimately though I think you could have written this from watching any film about a band striving for success and reading a couple of Wikipedia pages (though that would likely be more accurate), it brings very little to the screen or the story that feels revelatory as a benefit of Jim ‘Miami’ Beach, Brian May and Roger Taylor’s involvement.
The film itself states that Freddie was at his best when he has the other bandmates to push against. I think the same is true in film. There might have been a better film to make here if there were more resistance, especially to the Queen producers, yet it seems that on many occasions through the extended production any sources of resistance were removed, even up to the final weeks of production where director Bryan Singer was fired and replaced by Dexter Fletcher (who had been attached to direct years earlier). Fletcher then had to oversee the end of editing to make a successful film out of his fortnight of work along with all that had been shot under Singer’s direction.
There is absolutely a different Queen and Freddie Mercury story to be told, but one that will have to come later as an ‘unofficial’ version of events that doesn’t have the band members involvement. Until then, it remains the ‘untold’ story of Queen, the deeper, darker story that could potentially captivate as much as its central character.‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ though garnering mixed reviews from critics, proved a huge success with audiences, taking huge amounts and topping box offices worldwide. It has performed surprisingly well with awards too, taking Golden Globes for Malek’s lead performance and as Best Drama. Nominated now for BAFTAs and Oscars, it looks like it could get a few more plaudits though serious controversy involving Bryan Singer and a strong backlash when compared to other nominees may take effect by the time we get to the Academy Awards on the 24th, and this coming weekend I think it may fall flatter at the BAFTAs than it has been doing on the other side of the pond.
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