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Friday, November 02, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

What we have here is a paint by numbers movie that is lifted solely by the extraordinary performance of Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, as well as the incredible energy and recreation of the music and concert scenes.  Everything outside of these two elements is uninspiring, safe, and at times uninformed, as the narrative gets a lot of details wrong in the third act when it comes to telling the story of the legendary rock group.  I understand that some narrative changes are always necessary in a biopic, but Bohemian Rhapsody goes almost to the point of revisionist history at times.

A perfect example of this comes during a scene late in the film, where Freddy decides that he needs to move on to a solo career, and is going to break up the band.  The thing is that this never happened.  Yes, Freddy Mercury did move on to a solo career, but the band Queen never truly ended as this movie would want us to believe.  It also tells us that his fellow bandmates including lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bassist John Deacon (former child star Joseph Mazzello) were angered by the news that Freddy was embarking on a solo career, when in fact some of them had participated in solo projects before Freddy did.  The movie is just creating melodrama, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) is staying slavishly faithful to the traditional "rise and fall" plotline that is as old as the hills, where the main character gets an inflated ego after years of success, shuns his friends, and destroys his life until he is forced to come crawling back and reconcile with the people he hurt or misused. 

The thing is, Queen's story does not need these kind of traditional elements.  For a band that was constantly changing the rules and creating some of the most memorable music ever created, the fact that this film feels so overly conventional and undernourished whenever the actors are not on stage or in the recording studio is frustrating.  There were some well-publicized behind the scenes turmoil during the film's production, mostly surrounding the film's credited director, Bryan Singer, who was fired at some point due to difficult behavior on the set, and so Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) was called in to do some uncredited work to finish the film.  But does the production problems explain the film's bizarre stance toward the fact that Mercury was bisexual, and seems to look down upon this, and almost shame him for being in love with men?  That's a much harder thing to ignore.

After a brief intro sequence set at Queen's legendary performance at Live Aid in 1985 (this also closes the film), the movie dives head-first into Mercury's life story told at fast-forward, and with little connecting tissue that allows us to grasp the impact of the individual moments.  This is another one of those movies that tells the life of a famous person by cherry-picking certain moments, and telling it in the manner of "This happened...then this happened...then this happened..." with no substance in-between.  We first meet Freddy as an awkward young man handling the luggage at an airport, and not being able to truly connect or communicate with his father. (A plot point that is brought up once in a while, but goes absolutely nowhere.) He goes to a bar where he sees a band perform, and then goes to talk to them after the show.  As fate would have it, they just lost their lead singer to another group, and Freddy immediately gets the gig.  A couple scenes later, and Freddy is performing live for the first time, and wowing the crowd with his energy and enthusiasm.  A couple more scenes later, and the band is called Queen, being courted by record producers, being put on TV, and is soon traveling the world.

Although we see brief glimpses into the creation of some of their most famous songs, Bohemian Rhapsody never truly lets us into the creative process.  We also never truly get a look at what Mercury and his bandmates think of each other, or their personal relationships.  What we do get is the sense that the movie is trying to tell us that the rest of the band looked down on Freddy's lifestyle of being gay.  The movie depicts them as happy family men who just don't understand or support Freddy's choice.  The movie treats the band with such a cursory indifference, we actually at times wonder just who these people are who are playing with Freddy.  Equally ignored is the character of Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who supports and marries Freddy, and then leaves him when she finds out he's gay in a scene that lacks any sort of the emotional power it should have.  Mary was such an important figure in Freddy's life, and remained a dear friend right up to his death in 1991.  But in this film, she simply fades in and out of his life, existing only to shake her head with dismay as she sees her former husband falling into sin, and then smiling from the sidelines as she watches him perform at Live Aid.

It's become an unfortunate trend that a lot of biopics about famous musicians completely lose what made the artist so interesting, and simply insert them into a generic formula picture.  I was often reminded of last year's All Eyez on Me, the film that took the life of rapper Tupac Shakur, and turned it into an uninspired Hollywood retread that had all the complexity of a Wikipedia article.  I named that film one of the worst of 2017, and while this is a better movie, it shares a lot of the same problems.  It offers us no insights into the subject matter, and does nothing but regurgitate facts that anyone could easily look up on line.  Combine that with the fact that the movie makes up quite a few facts in the last half of the film, and it loses all reason for existing, except for the fact that the musical and concert sequences are downright brilliant.  Also troublesome is the way the film depicts Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), Freddy's gay lover.  The movie presents Paul as a villain, and almost makes it seem like Freddy had no thoughts of gay sex until Paul led him down the path.  From that point on, he is seen constantly manipulating, and shutting Freddy away from the other people in his life.  The movie never once shows the attraction between the two men, or what they meant to each other.  He simply exists as a controlling, sinful evil-doer.

Bohemian Rhapsody almost seems to suggest that it was Freddy's sexual preference that led to his downfall in his career, and ultimately his life.  Rather than focus on the man and the music, the movie is content to twist and contort the facts in order to fit a structured Hollywood narrative.  This, and other questionable decisions (including a truly groan-inducing meta appearance by comedian Mike Myers of Wayne's World fame as a music executive who hates the Bohemian Rhapsody song) overwhelms the aspects of the film that do work, such as Malek's portrayal of Mercury, which is nearly flawless.  Even though he is not actually singing the songs, his performance is so good, you never question that he is Mercury up there on the stage.  For everything the movie gets right, it makes many staggeringly bad decisions, and ultimately winds up coming up empty.

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