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Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

February 22, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody – which is up for five Oscars including Best Picture – is, of course, named after the hit single off the rock band’s fourth studio album A Night at the Opera.

A sprawling six minute opus made up of multiple different musical sections that careens between ballad, opera and hard rock, with no chorus and cryptic, poetic lyrics, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released as a single in 1975 and became a massive hit, despite receiving mixed reviews from critics at the time. It’s now rightfully considered one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

I’m bringing this up because a divide between critics and the masses similarly happened around the film Bohemian Rhapsody when it was released last fall. I have heard from a lot of people who loved it, but many reviewers were less than kind, and I am actually somewhat sympathetic to both points of view.

I’m not going to try and say who is more right when it comes to a film like this, as I tend to believe that there is no real right or wrong in terms of what films people enjoy. But to use the analogy of the song, I don’t think this film is some sort of misunderstood masterpiece. It’s clichéd and uneven, and has a lot of baggage around it that is hard to fully shake off, including the fact that it was at least partially directed by Bryan Singer, which I’ll address more later on. But taken at face value as a largely undemanding crowdpleaser, Bohemian Rhapsody is often entertaining to watch, built around an Oscar-nominated performance from Rami Malek as Queen leader Freddie Mercury.

The film largely serves to dramatize Freddie Mercury’s life. Born in Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara to Indian Parsi parents (Meneka Das and Ace Bhatti), who emigrated to England with him when he was a teenager, Freddie always felt like an outcast. This was partially due to his very prominent overbite, the result of the four extra incisors he was born with, which he credited with giving him more space in his mouth and a larger vocal range.

The movie’s version of events has Mercury meet lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) when they are performing with their local band Smile at a club in London, on the same night that their lead singer quits unexpectedly. Mercury asks to join the band, giving birth to Queen. From here, the film unfolds with montages of the band on tour and scenes in the recording studio, as Mercury’s personal struggles threaten to derail their success.

The screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who also wrote The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, follows the usual musical biopic formula to a tee as it takes us through Queen’s ascent to the top of the charts and the inevitable unspooling of the band when Mercury tries to go solo, before their triumphant reunion at Live Aid. The film uses the band’s famous performance at the 1985 charity concert as its main framing device, culminating with an impressive recreation of their twenty minute set, which is shown almost in its entirety. It’s not all factually accurate, but it makes for a pretty good story.

Along the way, we see Mercury’s clashes with the other members of the band, which also leads to many fruitful collaborations as they write and record multiple hit songs together; the band’s battles with a skeptical record executive (Mike Myers, cue the Wayne’s World in-jokes), who is reluctant to back them as they go more experimental and doubts “Bohemian Rhapsody” will become a hit; as well as Mercury’s romantic relationship with manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who is painted in a largely antagonistic light and shown as driving a wedge between Freddie and the other band members.

It would be impossible for me to review Bohemian Rhapsody without addressing the fact that Bryan Singer is credited as the film’s director. Singer has faced multiple allegations of sexual assault against underage boys, including filming explicit nude scenes with minors on the set of his 1997 film Apt Pupil, as well as drugging and raping various teenagers. These reports have been an open secret in Hollywood for years, and yet they have been largely ignored and swept under the rug up until recently, allowing him to continue working and taking on massive projects like this.

Singer was fired from Bohemian Rhapsody near the end of production when he stopped showing up to set, and he was reportedly difficult to work with even before that. Malek has since gone on record to describe his experience with the filmmaker as “not pleasant.” Dexter Fletcher, who serves as executive producer on the film, was tasked with completing the project. But due to a Director’s Guild of America ruling, Singer still gets the sole director credit, because he was the one who oversaw the majority of the production. He has reportedly turned a $40 million profit from it as well.

While I often try to separate art from artist, the spectre of Bryan Singer hangs over the film like a dark cloud, and there are valid questions to be raised about why everyone involved in the film agreed to work with him, or why he was even hired in the first place. But the majority of people who watch Bohemian Rhapsody will do so unaware of Singer’s behaviour on set and the disturbing allegations against him, so I can’t fault the many audiences who have been entertained and even genuinely moved by the film for turning it into a blockbuster hit and the highest grossing biopic of all time.

I would be lying if I said that Singer’s involvement hasn’t impacted my view of Bohemian Rhapsody, as it’s the sole reason why I put off seeing the film for so long and didn’t want to pay for it in theatres. But I still tried to watch it with as open a mind as possible, and I will admit that I was mostly entertained by the film. I would even go so far as to say that it’s genuinely enjoyable at times, but parts of it also feel clunky in ways that are hard to really overlook.

This film has actually been in development for nearly a decade, with Sacha Baron Cohen initially set to star as Freddie Mercury, before dropping out due to creative differences with the surviving members of the band. Because Brian May and Roger Taylor are credited as executive producers on the film, and had final say over the screenplay, we get the sense that Bohemian Rhapsody is showing us the sanitized and “approved” version of events, and not necessarily the complete picture. For starters, their characters, along with bass player John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), are largely portrayed here as the more sensible, well-behaved members of the band who disapproved of Mercury’s hard partying ways.

The film offers a somewhat glossed over portrayal of Mercury’s problems with drug addiction and substance abuse, and also has a mixed success rate in terms of addressing his sexuality. It’s not that Bohemian Rhapsody shies away from the fact that Mercury was gay, or at the very least bisexual, but it doesn’t always handle this aspect of his life in the best or most nuanced ways, either. For example, the film first suggests that he is gay by having his eyes linger on a man (current Queen frontman Adam Lambert in a brief cameo) going into a truck stop bathroom, with the camera pushing in on the word “MEN” written on the door in big, bold letters.

Another questionable sequence shows hazy images of Mercury at a gay bar interacting with various leather-clad men, superimposed over footage of the band first performing “Another One Bites the Dust” in the recording studio. The AIDS diagnosis that ultimately led to his death in 1991 comes shortly after in the film’s narrative. This choice is not only eye-rollingly obvious from a cinematic standpoint, but also seems to be shaming him for his sexuality in a really uncomfortable way.

The overt heavy-handedness of these moments is contrasted by the more sensitive approach of the scene where he comes out to his wife Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). A friend from college whom he married while still in the closet, Freddie considers her to be “the love of his life,” and we get the sense that he does genuinely care about her, but their relationship is complicated by him being attracted to men and inevitably can’t last. It’s one of the film’s most genuine moments, as it works to peel back the layers of Freddie’s confident stage presence and allows him to appear more vulnerable and unsure of himself.

“I think I’m bisexual,” he tells her, to which she responds “no, Freddie, you’re gay.” While some have criticized this scene for “erasing” his bisexual identity, I actually think it’s an interesting moment for the way that it shows how Mercury not only faced confusion from within himself but also from those around him, as he was being pushed into a binary world of gay or straight.

The relationship that Freddie had with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) in the latter stages of his life is also depicted, but the fact that Bohemian Rhapsody has these two characters first meet at a house party, where Jim is working as a server and Freddie drunkenly gropes him without his consent, casts it in a somewhat uncomfortable light, especially considering the allegations against Singer. It’s unclear if this crotch-grab even happened in real life, as the two actually met at a gay bar, so it’s likely one of the many dramatic liberties that the filmmakers decided to take.

The film takes some pretty major licenses with the story in favour of crafting a better narrative arc, shifting around some of the timelines and condensing or even changing certain elements. One of the most notable examples of the film’s revisionist history is that it shows Mercury finding out that he has contracted AIDS prior to the band’s appearance at Live Aid, despite the fact that in real life he wasn’t diagnosed until several years later. The performance also wasn’t really even a reunion for them, as the band had just wrapped up a tour eight weeks earlier. While I can understand the reasoning behind several of these changes from a dramatic standpoint, some of the choices work better than others.

Editor John Ottman does a fine job of assembling the concert scenes, including several flashy match cuts, and he did help salvage the film in the wake of Singer’s dismissal. But the film is also sometimes awkwardly edited, shifting between close ups and needless cutaways, giving the impression that they didn’t shoot enough coverage. This is most apparent in a poorly assembled scene where the band first meets their prospective managers.

An extended scene at a press conference where Mercury is hounded with questions about his sexuality also feels disjointed. The sequence uses distorted camera angles and unfolds in quick cuts, clearly meant to illustrate the disorientation and confusion of his public and private life colliding, but the approach ends up feeling cheesy and doesn’t really match the rest of the movie.

But there are still elements of the film that do deserve some praise. The selection of classic songs that populate the soundtrack are obviously excellent, and there are also some fun moments in the studio that shed a bit of light on the band’s creative process, including the recording of the title song. The musical performances are also fun to watch, and bring a certain level of energy to the film that keeps it moving at a good pace, building towards the rousing and wildly entertaining last act depicting their performance at Live Aid. This sequence is very well crafted, even if the facts around it have been somewhat changed.

At the centre of Bohemian Rhapsody is Rami Malek, who carries the film with a magnetic performance that keeps our eyes locked on his character. The actor does an impressive job of imitating Mercury’s oversized stage presence, strutting about the screen like a flamboyant peacock during the film’s musical numbers, but it’s in the moments of vulnerability that Malek really shows his range. Yes, Mercury was a born showman, but Malek also portrays him as a lonely and confused misfit struggling to fit in, and this is what elevates his performance from mere impersonation and into something better.

The biggest problem with Bohemian Rhapsody, besides the misguided handling of some of the story elements, is how formulaic the film feels. As a band, Queen took risks. The very success of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” rests upon the fact that it was wildly original and unlike anything anyone had ever heard before on the radio. As a movie, Bohemian Rhapsody largely plays it safe, adhering closely to the standard “greatest hits” biopic formula, (which was lampooned so brilliantly in the 2007 spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), when perhaps a more unconventional approach to telling the life story of Freddie Mercury would have suited him better.

If you can look past Singer’s involvement in the film, and it’s obviously debatable whether or not you should, then Bohemian Rhapsody is a decent musical biopic that delivers exactly what you expect from the genre, for better and for worse. It’s clearly flawed and overly conventional in its construction, but as a breezy crowdpleaser that is meant simply to entertain while showcasing some great music, the film has enough rousing and even touching moments to at least make it fairly enjoyable to sit through.

Bohemian Rhapsody is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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