Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
One of the most-anticipated movies of 2018, and for years prior, once the project was announced.
Dear Academy Voters: First name: Rami. Last name: Malek. That’s M-A-L-E-K. Don’t forget him when you fill out your ballots in January 2019.
The soundtrack is dynamic and underscores that Queen were not only innovators in rock and roll, but unparalleled in their blending of genres and style.
Perhaps the most disingenuous film of the year.
A mess of a film. It moves through a linear narrative, but flat out changes knowable, documentable facts, sanitizes the more controversial elements of the Freddie Mercury/Queen and banks on no one in the audience caring about this whatsoever.
Rami Malek almost single-handedly makes this worth seeing. I can’t keep you away, if you want to see this. But just be weary of what you’re being sold.
Cracks Knuckles and turns up ‘Killer Queen’
Bohemian Rhapsody is perhaps the most disingenuous movie of 2018.
Presenting as a slick, polished, larger-than-life look at the legendary, groundbreaking band Queen, and iconic lead singer Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody tells a micro-managed, carefully crafted, sanitized version of the band’s formation in 1970, culminating in the explosive, unforgettable 1985 performance in London’s Wembley Stadium during the global fund-raising show Live Aid.
Elements of Bryan Singer’s film are very good. We’ll talk about Rami Malek’s career-defining turn as Mercury in a moment, but the outstanding soundtrack, exceptional sound design, and a near, move-by-move recreating of that Live Aid performance almost makes the film’s blemishes disappear.
For starters, Singer’s tumultuous stint as director caused fights with cast and crew, on set breakdowns, and eventually, his firing (or dismissal) when he asked to tend to an ailing parent. A second director, Dexter Fletcher, finished the shoot, but receives no credit. And while it is not quite clear which scenes Fletcher saw to completion, we ultimately have a movie that skips through space and time, short-cuts details, messes around with timelines, and makes everyone not named Freddie Mercury look like saints.
You see, Bohemian Rhapsody was set to star Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury, dating back to 2010, and could not be made without the surviving members of Queen having final say on script and final cut. When Cohen bowed out after “creative differences,” the movie went through years of stops and starts, until Malek was hired and the movie was back on track in 2016.
Mercury is introduced as a fan of the fledgling start-up band called Smile, who fortuitously lands a gig as the band’s new lead singer when a vacancy pops open. His unique, odd persona illuminates and becomes larger-than-life instantly when put on stage, giving a dynamic new look and feel to the band.
Suddenly, the band is renamed Queen from a sketch Mercury makes, he falls in love with Mary (Lucy Boynton), and we are selling a bus to finance a debut album. While 134 minutes long, Bohemian Rhapsody runs at breakneck speed through significant details of the band’s story. And we soon begin to see how the surviving band members see themselves, in contrast to Mercury’s eccentricities.
Lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) is the sensible one, bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) is a bit of a worrier, and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) just kind of quietly observes things. And Mercury is an eccentric wild man, frequently late, self-absorbed. The go-to marker for a check and balance on Mercury’s outlandishness seems to be May furrowing his brow increasingly, while Mercury comes into his own as a rock-and-roll front man.
Quickly scenes play false, well, because they are. A major moment for the band and their success is when they stand up to manager Roy Foster (Mike Myers), disgusted with the demo of operatic rock ballad, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Demanding the band stick to formula because formula sells, they threaten to walk and demand the 6-minute song be their new album’s first single.
Cool moment for the movie, but Myers’ scowling character never existed and this never took place. And, even if we forgive this as cinematic license, the fabrications start to arrive like a flood.
Mercury’s firing of a manager in a limousine. The timeline of when Mercury was diagnosed with HIV. A band break-up that never took place. Mercury’s potential solo album in 1985, being viewed as a betrayal. (Roger Taylor had released two albums and eight singles, and Brian May an EP, prior to Mercury’s album release in 1985.)
And on and on.
And this is where I, as a decently informed Queen fan, get angry because Queen are literally banking that no one will care. Because when you watch Malek transform himself into Mercury and give an Oscar-worthy, career-making performance, and you hear Queen’s iconic catalog swell on the soundtrack, we whisk along to the next half-truth, lie, or misrepresentation with enthusiasm and glee.
So much for leaving it all behind and facing the truth, huh?
Rated PG-13, this is Queen for the masses, which is going to make anyone with an interest in this being successful very rich, very soon. But at what cost? Bohemian Rhapsody and so much of Queen’s operatic, ambitious theatrical rock and roll always had a heart and an emotional core that connected diverse audiences to their unmistakable brand of rock music.
And yet the movie cannot even offer a fair representation of Mercury’s life.
Malek however, is a revelation. His becoming Freddie Mercury is not impersonation or caricature, it feels real and pure. Similar to how Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles and swept through awards season for the film Ray, Malek is astonishing and vanishes into the essence and enigma that was Mercury. His commanding performance hints at an actor who would be more than willing to go to the places Cohen wanted to go, if allowed to, and this performance should be at the centerpiece of every conversation possible when it comes to awards consideration.
However, he can only carry this movie so far. And when an admittedly rousing and fantastic Live Aid sequence arrives, richly detailed and painstakingly recreated for the film, it is hard not to want to love the movie for all that Malek gives us, and the high Bohemian Rhapsody delivers for those final 10-15 minutes.
But then (BUT THEN!!!) the film misrepresents details in the closing title cards, while we are humming the music, singing the songs, and trying to ignore an uneasy feeling in our gut that somehow this was little more than a bid to sell albums, downloads, and streams.
And when “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Will Rock You” and a triple-album Greatest Hits package all are sitting near the top of the iTunes/Apple Music streaming and sales charts, by the end of the opening day of the film’s release, I imagine the surviving members of the band are smiling really big.
At least we have this ring true: “Carry on, carry on…as if nothing really matters…”
CAST & CREW
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aiden Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Meneka Das, Ace Bhatti, Priya Blackburn, Dermot Murphy.
Director: Bryan Singer
Written by: Anthony McCarten (screenplay); Anthony McCarten, Peter Morgan (story)
Release Date: November 2, 2018
20th Century Fox