Film Review: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

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Posted January 8, 2019 by J Matthew Cobb in HiDef
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Rami Malek’s performance aside, Bohemian Rhapsody is a giant piece of overrated puff with lots of historic exaggerations and not enough mystery

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was written in late 2018, weeks before the Golden Globes aired. In light of its win for Best Motion Picture – Drama, HiFi Magazine decided to finally run the piece, hoping to shed light on the film and apparent Oscar buzz.

Of all the bands most deserving of a biopic in today’s socially-evolving climate, Queen surely rises to the top. Oh, there’s plenty more on the way; Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, possibly Aretha Franklin. In the realm of great filmmaking and the conversation surrounding high-caliber rock bands, Queen has all the key ingredients in its ripe history of uniqueness, triumphs, setbacks, exploration and tragedy. So why is it Bohemian Rhapsody, the first ever official bio-pic and one led by the band’s living roster, manages to stumble so hard in its conquest?

Yes, I said it. It stumbled.

Rami Malek steals the show in Queen biopic, literally

Rami Malek steals the show in Queen biopic, literally

Well, there’s a number of quibbles in play here. For starters, the screenplay is plainly off when it comes down to telling history. Certainly, filmmakers are at liberty to pursue cinematic storytelling, by making something bland on the surface feel important. Either by over exaggeration or by importing a difference of interpretation, this choice tends to rub the casual historian the wrong way. Because they know better. And they know that beholders of the truth will scoff at what they are being served on the box office platter. In Bohemian Rhapsody, a lot of that happens.

If this band wasn’t one of the last great bands of the 20th century, the crime wouldn’t be so obvious, but this ain’t a bio-doc on Blind Willie Johnson or some obscure relic in the back pages of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is a film based on one of the most revered, best selling and highly documented bands on the planet. Everyone knows “Fat Bottomed Girls” was recorded much later than it was inserted in this film when they toured the States for the first time (“Fat Bottomed Girls” first surfaced on 1978’s Jazz, while historically Queen toured the US for the first time; as opening act for Mott the Hopple on a 19-date tour). “We Will Rock You” was rocking stadiums way before 1980, where the film inserts it into their timeline.

Oh, there’s more! Everyone knows (or should know) that the band didn’t initially break up during the Live Aid era just because Mercury wanted to do a solo record or had grown fatigued of the band. You should recall the other bandmates recorded solo records in between Queen albums, Roger Taylor being the first with 1981’s Fun in Space. And that eventual breakup presented on the big screen, almost puffed up with laughable exaggeration, doesn’t match the history books at all. In the film, they act like they hadn’t played together in a live setting all that year or even rehearsed; the record shows that they played Rio earlier that year.

Ready for another blunder? During a rehearsal scene for their Live Aid stint, Mercury’s voice seems to be faltering and forces him to reveal to his bandmates that he has AIDS. This is also blatantly wrong, since Mercury learned of his diagnosis years later, somewhere around 1987. At the time of Live Aid in 1985, Mercury’s voice, which we all have witnessed in some form or fashion, was at its peak, destroying any notion that Mercury’s gift was cracking. And there are so many important moments that fall victim to an avalanche of irritating whitewashing of facts. We get why Brian May and Roger Taylor wants to pump more sass into their already golden narrative about how they’ve achieved platinum status. It adds more spark and animation to the narrative for the big screen, but Bohemian Rhapsody almost feels like the story they want you to know. As if reality wasn’t good enough. Sure, some exaggeration is expected and deemed necessary, but when is too much just too much?

Where the film finds it’s resting place of redemption is in Rami Malek’s interoperation of the band’s godlike frontman, Freddie Mercury. His role, his near-perfect portrayal of the iconic rock wonder, is the film’s greatest discovery. Give him the Oscar, give him the Golden Globe. He played that part.

Scene snapshot from the recreated infamous Live Aid performance

Scene snapshot from the recreated infamous Live Aid performance

It should also be said that Bohemian Rhapsody is more a bio-doc about him than his band partners. Sure, we see the band performing as Smile in a small London bar early on, we get their names and their former occupations. But the film tries to discover every nook and cranny on Mercury, as much can be sequestered into a 90 minute visual. We meet his parents, a lovable and caring couple that struggles with their son’s new career and mountaintop game, much later his sexuality. We see his expensive pad, his romantic tingling with his wife and the thing that bonded them together — flashy fashion. We see his appetite for men growing as he embraces fully that he’s bisexual. There are no sex scenes, with either men or women, probably an executive decision made by the band. And that’s okay, because even if Mercury’s sexual appetite was on full display on stage and peaked by the end of the 70s during the hedonistic disco revolution which “Another One Bites the Dust” gets its formation, he always remained extremely private. Most of his deepest carnal explorations are possibly kept in a locked vault somewhere or inside the craniums of those he was intimate with; the brotherhood of the band — although labeled amongst them as being “family” — possibly never saw that part of Mercury. But the biopic fails to tell us more than what we already know of Mercury and the gang. Instead it acts as a tamer introduction of them to the masses, performing as a glossy two-hour infomercial that focuses too heavily on the creation of their biggest hits (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You”) and Mercury’s heavily-known profile footnotes. The greatest of them all — the legacy of Queen’s Live Aid set fills up the last ten minutes of the film, replete with lip-synch simulation and some hocus pocus CGI magic.

The storyline might be marred with factual errors or cinematic hyperbole, but principal film director Bryan Singer (who was fired before completion and replaced by Eddie the Eagle director Dexter Fletcher) gets points for recreating the eras with glowing results. Set and costume design is pretty much on point, duplicating much of the period as possible. It only starts to feel cheap when looking deep into the immense crowds during the recreated live concert scenes. Some actually look like extras from something from our decade. In the earlier concert shots, the arenas are pitched so darkly that it looks like a near-hundred are only present with an emblazoned shadow overcast covering up the remaining blank space. Even the CGI and camera shots of the Live Aid scene seems lazy. The only thing saving these performances, one that deserves attention, is the movements of Malek, where he excels with Mercury’s swift reflexes, superhero-like flexibility and transparent love of the stage. And it continues in the dialogue of the other scenes, when he raises his voice and weeps during the script’s most heartbreaking moments. You get a chance to witness the rock star as a good-hearted human, presented with the right dose of vulnerability and consistently searching for life’s answers, even as he juggles his rising ego. And it is in those moments where Bohemian Rhapsody finds its shine.

Maybe if given a larger budget or the blessing of a miniseries, the possibilities of a more perfect story would’ve been actualized. We would’ve witnessed some in-between comic relief, like how Mercury’s solo sessions with Michael Jackson were abruptly cut due to the King of Pop’s obsession with his own pet llama. Or any interactions with other rock gods, like David Bowie (“Under Pressure,” which is heard, but no one plays him).  There’s not even a single mention of them pulling off the entire motion picture soundtrack to the laughable, but cult worshipped Flash Gordon, which lives onward for its highly-sampled theme song, “Flash.” And God knows, there’s no humor in this film. Even the scene where Queen puts on drag for the music video of “Look at Me Now” gets no real injection of laughter due to the scene’s overt seriousness, focusing heavily on Mercury’s growing discomfort with his bandmates. And for a character that is constantly hailed as a gay icon, you almost have to read between the lines to get the truth, as if Bohemian Rhapsody is a universal coming of age story dumbed down to a G-rated TV special.

Let it be duly noted that the film takes its own self and Queen’s intact legacy so serious that it ruins any sign of unpredictability and possibly every rousing moment. Having said that, Bohemian Rhapsody has its salvageable moments — Rami’s performance passes the superior mark, topping anything else presented. Plus, everyone is going to rush to Wikipedia to research Queen like a new fad, flocking to YouTube to see their MTV-banned “Look at Me Now” video while storming their local record store for an original pressing audience of their most treasured albums. Good for them. But for Pete’s sake, whatever you do while hunting for Queen content, skip the official soundtrack album. Unless you’re aggressively hungry in obtaining a Walmart-styled sampler that also includes most of their Live Aid tracks. That’s the only blessing to it. Because the movie mix of “We Will Rock You” and the “revisited” contributions come off feeling like ‘Glee’ performance tracks. And that’s just not royal of Queen at all.

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J MATTHEW COBB


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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