It Doesn’t Quite Bite The Dust: A Review Of Bohemian Rhapsody
Let’s face it, musical biopics are often a difficult terrain to negotiate. If it’s Hollywood-produced, or if the musician or musical act involved has final say on creative input, you can be pretty certain it’ll be a whitewashed, watered-down version of what happened. They’ll always be out to protect their legacy, or put forward the sweetest-smelling version they can muster. For example, if the Jackson family ever authorised a Michael biopic, I very much doubt we’ll have a scene of his bedroom filled with children ‘sleeping over’. That’s just the lay of the land, so I don’t know what people were expecting when Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic about Freddie Mercury and Queen was announced.
And of course, the grapevine surrounding this film went buzzing when Sacha Baron Cohen quit the film over creative differences over the film’s direction—he was the original choice to play Mercury, but complained the story had been de-fanged. And when Rami Malek, known for his work on TV’s Mr. Robot stepped in to play Mercury, it was hyped up as a perfect fit. Even if as an American actor of Egyptian descent, there was some initial skepticism about how he would tackle the accent and movement required for the role.
As it is, the final product has one very fantastic lead portrayal by Rami Malek as Freddie; and a story that starts off with some promise, then ends up meandering and being riddled with so-so vignettes, until it all does come together for the final twenty minutes or so, when the film tries to faithfully capture on film what was Queen’s true magic— their live performances; in this case, their career-reviving Live Aid set in 1985 at Wembley.
The film chronicles the life of the band and its’ main man from 1970 to 1985; and while it doesn’t shirk from acknowledging Mercury’s sexual orientation, his descent into excess, and his contracting AIDS; it does so in oblique ways, never truly focusing on this seamier, or more controversial, aspect of Mercury’s life.
Call it delicacy, or call it protecting the legacy; but I presume it’s this kid gloves approach that have film reviewers fuming over the film’s ‘impotent’ approach. An indie film like Love & Mercy (2015) dealt with Brian Wilson’s mental breakdown and its effect on the Beach Boys with brutal honesty—but as Bohemian comes from a major studio, plus the surviving members of Queen had script approval, at least this film doesn’t quite bite the dust.
It’s the middle portion of this film that poses the most problems. Queen had a relatively uneventful rise to the top. While the Rolling Stones had Brian Jones’ death, the Beatles their infamous break up, and prior to that, the ‘We’re more popular than Jesus’ quote fracas; Queen just had their flamboyant front man who could sing across four octaves, and their impressive string of pop hits that bravely crossed-over musical genres including Opera, Rockabilly, and Classical music.
Yes, it heightens the drama, but I couldn’t buy how the film attempts to show that so many hit songs came as a direct result of some internal conflict or fight between band members—like the bass line that intros one hit, or how waiting for Freddie to show up at the studio leads Brian May to think up We Will Rock You. Undoubtedly, Queen was the master of stadium and anthem Rock, but that these songs originated exactly in such a manner stretches even credulity.
So we’re basically biding time here, showing off their string of hits; but with no real dramatic intensity to engage us. Thankfully, Malek as Mercury is always watchable. And then, there’s that masterful last twenty minutes, when the pathos of his illness, the healing of wounds and rifts, and that fine live performance, truly rekindle for us the undeniable magic that was Queen.
Photos via Fox Movies