Movie Review: Drama/Biography – Bohemian Rhapsody
Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (uncredited)
Written by Anthony McCarten
Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy
I once worked with a guy named Kevin who loved to talk, usually at length and in a loud voice. He was like a high-pressure car salesman, brimming with big stories that always seemed part of a pitch. You sensed there were threads of truth in his words, but they were always filtered through a megaphone of exaggeration and self-aggrandizement designed to make him look like somebody special when you knew the truth was almost certainly more shaded and less flattering. Sometimes the effort he put into selling his goods was entertaining. Sometimes you just wanted him to shut the hell up. But Kevin persisted, seemingly unaware that not everyone bought what he was selling. Bohemian Rhapsody, the Bryan Singer directed, Queen sanctioned movie about the history of that band and its legendary lead singer-songwriter, Freddie Mercury, is a lot like Kevin. It’s loud and flashy and somewhat entertaining, and it gets most of the basic facts right, but it’s peppered with falsehoods that seem calculated to boost the egos of the band’s surviving members at the expense of their deceased lead singer. And it’s aided and abetted by a lazy script by Anthony McCarten, a biopic veteran (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour), that consistently chooses easy clichés over thoughtful examination and meaningful truth.
The movie begins with the formation of the band. Farrokh Bulsara, a shy, bucktoothed British lad of Persian decent who goes by the name of Freddie (Rami Malek), lives with his parents and sister. One night he goes to a local club to hear his favorite local band, Smile, featuring Brian May on guitar, Roger Taylor on drums, John Deacon on bass, and Tim Staffell on vocals. There he meets Mary (Lucy Boynton) the woman to whom he will later propose and for whom he will write the song “Love of My Life.” While wandering outside the venue, he meets two of the band members, May (Gwilym Lee) and Taylor (Ben Hardy) who inform him that Staffell has left the band to sing with a group called, wait for it… Humpy Bong. Freddie sings for them and they agree that he should audition for the band.
In real life Freddie didn’t meet Mary that night. He already knew May and Taylor well and his band Ibex had even performed with them. And Deacon wouldn’t join the group for another three years. But this is a movie, and these are the kinds of typical biopic cheats that save time and confusion. Fair enough. But already the film has twisted the truth and replaced it with cheesy movie clichés. When Freddie first approaches May and Taylor, the moment is staged in one of those phony, formulaic movie scenes where the hero is unfairly judged on his appearance and is then redeemed by an auspicious display of talent – Freddie is insulted by Taylor who calls him “ugly” and mocks him for his protruding teeth. The singer explains that his overbite creates more room in his mouth, thus allowing a wider vocal range. Per the cliché, he puts them in their place with a brief, but impressive snippet of one of their songs. (Coming soon to a theater near you, The Susan Boyle Story!).
The three remaining band members quickly make Freddie the band’s new lead singer and in a flurry of movie montages, he shops for women’s clothing, changes his last name to Mercury, and convinces the band to change their moniker to the more suggestive Queen. They hock their van to buy time in a recording studio and soon their first album, containing the now classic “Keep Yourself Alive,” is released to little fanfare. Suddenly we’ve jumped to their third album and their first hit single, the brilliant pop-rock classic, “Killer Queen.” But it’s with their next release, A Night at the Opera, and the game-changing single from which the movie derives its title, that Bohemian Rhapsody offers up its first heapin’ helpin’ of fried malarkey. The band members meet with record executives, including bigwig, Ray Foster (the ridiculous Mike Meyers in full Kabuki make-up) who’s skeptical about their concept of rock opera and utterly refuses to release the nearly six-minute “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the album’s lead single. The four cocky lads storm out of the office and, ever the rock and roll rebels, throw a large rock through Foster’s window. This is the stuff of music legend, even more so because it never happened. Ray Foster never existed, they never stormed out of anyone’s office or threw a rock through the window, and the studio’s real executive, Roy Featherstone, loved the album, though he did have reservations about the band’s choice of “Rhapsody” as the lead. The scene is certainly entertaining and it’s, no doubt, an audience pleaser, but it’s so steeped in contrived biopic nonsense that it seems like a parody. The movie wants to show them as rebels, and musically, perhaps, they were, but this scene is pure stock, ready-made for every rock and roll movie with only the names changed.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” as we all know, is the single that put Queen on the map and is now revered as one of the essential tracks of the progressive rock era. From there the band grew to now legendary status, but it’s in their post-success era, which comprises the bulk of the film, that the story, while adhering to the basic facts, becomes almost criminally dishonest, presenting a self-serving, Kevin-like narrative that presents Mercury in a less than flattering light while May, Taylor, and Deacon come off scot-free. The film presents the band’s living members as hard working, beer-drinking blokes who only cared about the music, while the star-struck Freddie becomes lost in the flattery of success, selling out for money and daring to go solo. He wallows in the decadence of a drug-fueled, sex-obsessed lifestyle to fill the emptiness of his pitiful and lonely gay existence. Freddie transforms into the typical Hollywood biopic bohemian who abandons his friends, breaks up the band (never happened), distancing himself from his faithful bandmates who persevere through it all while they wait for him to pull his life together. If the story sounds familiar, it is, but not because it’s true, but because it’s the inkling of a real story filtered through an ages-old Hollywood formula. It’s a gay A Star is Born minus the depth of character and the electrifying musical numbers of Bradley Cooper’s first-rate musical remake.
While Mercury’s lavishly over-the-top parties and outrageous sexual exploits are well documented, the truth is always more complicated, especially when it’s the truth of being a queer man. The band members in the film never seem to have a problem with Freddie’s sexual preference, but the telling of his story, which they approved, is framed as a Hollywood morality tale told from the clueless point of view of straight men and permeated with unpleasant touches of homophobia.
So Freddie was a horny gay man who liked to party naked with hot guys and used his wealth and celebrity status to attract them. Big deal. If I ever win Mega Millions or Powerball, you can bet your sweet bubble butt a big gay orgy with all my favorite gay porn stars would be at the top of my bucket list. The movie largely shies away from that part of the singer’s life except for a few brief scenes of feigned decadence, bare-chested men in leather gimp masks, and some desperate pleas from Mary and the bandmates to abandon his lifestyle. Brian May has said that he didn’t want to focus too much on this aspect of Freddie’s life, preferring to focus on his talent. But in doing so, he does Mercury a disservice. There’s an honest and compelling movie to be made about why so many gay men fall into the trap of drugs and promiscuous sex, but a biopic that uses it as a half-assed plot device isn’t it. By keeping this part of Mercury’s life at a distance, the film effectively demonizes it. Rhapsody only shows enough of the singer’s homosexual life to make it look sleazy and scary to straight people.
Bohemian Rhapsody portrays Freddie as distant and isolated during this period and smears him by implying that he quit the band and that they hadn’t played together for years by the time of the movie’s climactic 1985 Live Aid concert, forcing them to scramble at the last minute to get in musical shape for that now beloved set. In truth, the band never broke up and had just finished a tour for their latest album. Freddie continued to be creative during that period with both the band and with his solo work. If he did have a problem, the film does little to understand why. From personal experience, I can tell you this almost certainly has something to do with the father-gay son dynamic, but the film begins with Mercury’s entering the band and any conflict with his father is handled superficially. Freddie’s pre-concert revelation of his HIV diagnosis also never happened. (He is thought to have been diagnosed two years later). And the film spends no legitimate amount of time exploring his feelings about the diagnosis, and the death sentence it was in the pre-cocktail days of the late 80s, a mind-boggling omission. But of course, it doesn’t fit with the script’s false narrative and the desire to conclude with the triumphant Live Aid performance.
In a few days, Malek will almost certainly win an Oscar for his performance in the film and I’m not entirely convinced it warrants the acclaim. It’s not necessarily his fault. He does what he can. But a prerequisite for any great performance is a great part, one with depth and nuance that gives an actor the opportunity to display his craft. There’s not much of that in Anthony McCarten’s flimsy script, so what we end up with is mostly mimicry. Malek is impressive in this regard, effectively copying the singer’s movements and mannerisms. But physical mimicry is about all we get. There are occasional touches that resonate. Malek wears a mouthpiece to mimic Mercury’s smile but spends most of his screen time pursing his lips around them as if to cover them up. That’s a smart choice in that it’s a subtle reminder of his insecurity about them, but the script doesn’t give him much room to expand on this. And I’m not sure that’s enough to warrant the praise. But the academy loves its mimics, so the award is Malek’s to lose.
Musically, the film is a letdown. Most of the songs are used in montage sequences and the only full song performed is the mediocre ‘Radio Gaga” in the film’s Live Aid finale. While there’s a certain amount of energy in the film’s staging of that event, the actual performance is available for viewing on YouTube, so why bother with an extended clip of Malek lip-synching when the real thing is readily available? Bryan Singer’s direction is perfunctory and uninspired, perhaps because of the film’s reportedly tumultuous production and his reported conflicts with Malek or perhaps because of the impending sex scandal that was about to halt his career. Singer left the production before the film was finished, leaving the uncredited Dexter Fletcher to complete the project. Fletcher directed the Elton John biopic Rocket Man, due in May, which is being billed as biographical fantasy, a most promising sign as it portends something more than a by-the-numbers timeline-based bio like this film. I’ll keep my fingers crossed on that one.
Bohemian Rhapsody‘s tinkering with the facts for dramatic purposes is a common practice in biographical films and I have no problems with it if it boosts dramatic effect without straying from the spirit of the truth, but many of the changes in the film seem to have ulterior motives, or even worse, they seem calculated to make the story more palatable to undemanding audiences. That’s the kind of artifice that doesn’t edify or enhance. It’s the kind that lazy screenwriters use to avoid taking risks. It may be adequate for pulling in the masses and entertaining them on some meaningless level. And if it makes audiences happy, who am I to argue? But it isn’t honest, and it tells us nothing of any value about Freddie or any of the other characters. What we have when all is said, done, and sung is not the real story of Freddie Mercury or Queen, but another tall tale by the likes of Kevin, a splashy, trashy, steaming load of bullshit.