Bohemian RhapsodyReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/02/18 00:42:15
With his raw and undeniable charisma, his unabashedly sexual presence, his ability to command the attention and focus of anywhere he stood, from a recording studio to the stage of the mammoth Live Aid concert, and, of course, that knockout voice that filled arenas throughout the world with a series of raucous anthems that continue to be played and celebrated decades after they were recorded, Freddie Mercury, the late lead singer of the hugely popular rock band Queen was, even by the oftentimes outlandish world of contemporary music, a performer who could legitimately be considered one of a kind. For anyone trying to put together a biopic centered around Mercury, that leads to the inevitable problem of trying to find someone capable of perfectly emulating all of those aspects that made Mercury stand out amongst his peers while at the same time delivering a convincing dramatic performance. This is no doubt the reason why “Bohemian Rhapsody” took so long to get made—there are precious few actors out there who would even seem to qualify for consideration (I have always thought that the only ideal person would have been the “Rocky Horror”-era Tim Curry) and the ones that might have been able to pull it off—Sacha Baron Cohen reportedly flirted with the part for a while—presumably bailed because of the extremely high risk of failure.Eventually the role wound up in the hands of Rami Malek and while he may not quite emulate Mercury in a couple of areas—the fake teeth used to simulate Mercury’s famous overbite are a constant distraction and the vocals on the songs heard in the film mix together his voice along with Mercury’s and Canadian singer Marc Martel—he otherwise embodies the singer, both onstage and off, to a startling degree. Like the best biopic performances, what he gives us is far more than just a mere imitation. He connects with Mercury almost on a granular level and when we are watching him, the effect at times feels like a full possession in the way that he suggests both the rock god adored by millions and the son of an ordinary Parsi family who dared to dream big and saw all of his wildest dreams comes true thanks to his astonishing talent. He is easily the best thing about “Bohemian Rhapsody” but the problem, as it turns out, is that he is also the only good thing about it as well. Having dodged a seemingly insurmountable hurdle with the signing of Malek, the film proceeds to drop the ball regarding virtually every other aspect with a shockingly bland and blasé tour of all the rock biopic cliches that most people thought had been thoroughly decimated by the knowing spoof “Walk Hard” a few years ago. If a film this crummy had been perpetrated on most ordinary rock stars, that would be bad enough but to present the life of someone as bold and iconoclastic as Mercury in such a formulaic manner almost feels like an insult.
The film presents Mercury’s rise to fame beginning in 1970, when he was working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport and living with his proper family, including a stern father (Ace Bhatti) who disapproves of his son’s lifestyle of going out to clubs practically every night. One of those nights pays off, however, when one of the bands he follows, Smile, loses its lead singer and Mercury does an impromptu audition for the remaining members, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) right there in the parking lot. Mercury is quickly signed on as the lead singer and the group, which now also includes basis John Deacon, begins its rise when he convinces the others to change the name of the group to Queen and invest all the money that they can muster (including selling their touring van) into the production of a demo tape. The tape attracts the attention of EMI Records and before long, the group is releasing albums and touring the world with their bombastic combination of heavy metal, prog rock and glam stylings. Of course, the road is not always easy and when it comes to their 1975 album “A Night at the Opera,” the amalgamation of different sounds leaves the record company weasels baffled, especially when Mercury insists that the first single must be the go-for-baroque epic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The hits keep coming on, most of which are given due representation on the soundtrack (though their contributions to the “Flash Gordon” soundtrack are inexplicably left out entirely), but, in familiar biopic fashion, these triumphs are offset by tensions in Freddie’s life, both band-related and otherwise, that threaten to bring everything down. His biggest complication at first is that while he meets and begins a long-term relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), whom he truly and deeply cares about, he is eventually forced to admit to himself and her (if virtually no one else officially) that he is fundamentally attracted to men. There are the usual problems with drugs and booze and Mercury’s increasingly diva-like behavior that leave his bandmates seething and Mercury ready to fall into the clutches of an ambitious underling, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) who leeches off of him while prodding him into a solo deal that threatens the existence of Queen itself. Luckily this riff is able to be healed just in time for Mercury to reconcile with his bandmates for their triumphant appearance at Live Aid (which serves as bookends to the film) but even that high point is tinged with tragedy as Freddie has just learned that he is HIV-positive, which would contribute to his too-soon death in 1991.
As many Queen fans will probably pick up on fairly quickly, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not a film that is entirely beholden to the mundane details of the historical record—to cite only two examples, Mercury’s first solo album and the HIV diagnosis both occurred after the Live Aid appearance. The problem with “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not that the film fudges with the historical record—most biopics do that to some extent in the attempt to cram the details of a life into the parameters of a standard running time (“Sid & Nancy” is one of the great rock biopics despite only having a glancing acquaintance with the historical record)—but that it does it so badly and with such banality. The screenplay was written by Anthony McCarten, whose previous efforts include such equally clunky biopics as “The Theory of Everything” and “The Darkest Hour,” and his work here shares the same essential flaw with those films—it feels more like a Wikipedia entry brought somewhat to life than an account of a fascinating and unique individual. He seems to have included every possible cliche of the genre into the film, from the at-times ridiculously on-the-nose dialogue to the awkward telescoping of events to make things more “moving” (as depicted in this film, Mercury evidently had a more hectic and event-filled Live Aid day than Bob Geldof and Phil Collins combined)—at one point, we hear Mercury yell out “We love you, Cleveland” and that constitutes one of the more original lines of dialogue. (At least that is specific—at one point, we see a montage of the band on tour in what is described in a subtitle as “Midwest USA.”) All of this is directed in the most listless and uneventful manner imaginable by Bryan Singer (although he left the production under unexplained circumstances during the final weeks of filming and was officially fired, he still retains the sole directorial credit) and if there is one positive aspect to the film, it is the fact that it is such a big nothing of a cinematic experience that it might finally bring an end to the inexplicable fan theory that he is actually a good filmmaker.Besides Malek’s performance, which really deserves a better showcase than it receives here, there are two moments in “Bohemian Rhapsody” that genuinely work—the sequence charting the long, frustrating and convoluted genesis of the song that gives the film its name from an offhand piano riff that it began as to the classic rock staple that it would eventually become and the finale in which the group’s now-legendary Live Aid performance is, save for the exclusion of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” replicated in full right down to the tiniest detail. And yet, even with these sequences, the film still manages to find ways of undercutting their effectiveness. The climax of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” section comes when an EMI executive complains that the song is nonsense and will never sell and the joke is that the record company weasel is played by Mike Myers, who famously helped give the song new life when it was included in the most famous scene of his hit film “Wayne’s World”—this is funny at first but the scene goes on for so long and is so aware of its in-joke status (including Myers talking about how kids will never drive around in their cars while banging their heads to the song) that it wears out its welcome long before it finally ends. As for the Live Aid sequence, it is a stunning reproduction of the actual performance (which can be confirmed by looking up the actual footage on YouTube) but the use of digital hordes to represent the massive Wembley Stadium crowd ends up undercutting the emotional impact that it should have delivered. Nevertheless, that sequence is still rousing enough to almost send audiences out into the parking lot convinced that they have seen a good movie but not quite—when “The Show Must Go On” begins playing over the end credits, it sounds more like a threat than a promise.
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