Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody ½

The worst film I've seen this year, and a genuine insult to Freddie Mercury's legacy. It's The Greatest Showman of 2018 in that it's a piece of glossy, overproduced, revisionist garbage that's totally dishonest in the portrayal of its subject. At least in this one the songs are good.

You'll notice in the opening credits that Brian May and Roger Taylor are credited as producers, and their influence is obvious. They're portrayed as the glue of responsibility that holds the band together in the end, as they move past their earlier partying lifestyle while Freddie doesn't (not that the passage of time is particularly clear anyway, aside from the title cards which give the date there's no indication of the rise of the band and how they grew to be so successful, they're just geniuses from the beginning who move past any external obstacle with sass and ease).

Brian and Roger are good boys who come to rehearsal on time, with May himself engineering the hook of We Will Rock You while Mercury stumbles in late and hungover. Mercury's sexuality is presented as the villain of the movie, personified by a moustache-twirling Paul Prenter, Mercury's personal manager. It's been well documented that Prenter was the "Judas" of Queen, manipulating Mercury and selling their stories to the tabloids, but outside of maybe two scenes the film fails to sell that manipulation. Instead much of Mercury's downfall is presented as his own fault, particularly due the lonely, misunderstood characterisation the movie applies to him.

This characterisation feels like total lip-service and is never resolved due to a sudden revelation in the third act, which is especially frustrating given endlessly dull scenes in the middle of the movie of Mercury languishing in his misery and insecurities. The seeds are there to explore the reasons behind these insecurities, such as his relationship with his parents and his heritage, but there's absolutely no connective tissue, so we just get scenes of Mercury masking his insecurities by partying and being flamboyant with his gay friends while the rest of the band look on and shake their heads because they just wanna make music.

If you're wandering why I haven't mentioned John Deacon yet, it's because the movie barely mentions him either. Aside from one scene where he impromptu comes up with the bassline to Another One Bites the Dust in the midst of another argument between the band and irrational Freddie (who wants to make disgusting pop music instead of real rock and roll), there's essentially nothing to his character, an aspect the movie even comments on and seems proud of.

The third act is where the movie becomes really gross, and as far as I can tell devolves into total fantasy. Queen essentially break up due to Freddie signing a solo record deal. I can't imagine this was actually the case given that in real life both May and Taylor released solo projects before Mercury ever did, but whatever, let's roll with the narrative that Freddie is the villain who breaks Queen apart. After realising his manager is misleading him, Mercury attempts to reconcile with the band, expressing discontent with the solo material he'd been recording (which I can't find any record of Mercury ever saying). In reality, Mercury by all accounts maintained a positive relationship with the rest of Queen while recording solo material, and was satisfied with his poppier solo output as it allowed him to make the music he wanted to without diluting the image of Queen. But the movie has to punish him and have him emotionally confront the band to let him back in, which they do.

And then, in perhaps the movie's most disgusting turn, Mercury reveals his AIDs diagnosis to the band before they go out and play Live Aid, so Freddie's AIDs is essentially presented as the fuel that causes them to fully reconcile and put on one of the greatest rock shows of all time. In real life, Mercury wouldn't be diagnosed with AIDs until two years after Live AID, and his eventual death from AIDs would become a key point in widening the discussion about awareness of the disease in the early 90s. It wasn't just a prop for the band to get back together. It's a cruel, dishonest distortion of reality so that the film can have Mercury fit into the position that it and the band wants him to.

I don't believe that movies based on real figures need to be entirely historically accurate, but here it goes beyond changes for artistic licence into straight-up revisionism. And try as he may, Rami Malek's performance just doesn't work. You can't blame him because it's somewhat of an impossible task bringing back to life such an iconic, energetic, excessive figure, but Malek settles for cheap impersonation, and the impersonation isn't even that good. He fundamentally doesn't have the stature or physicality; while Mercury ruled the stage Malek feels fearful and lifeless (side by side comparisons of the actual Live Aid performance and the recreation really highlight this), no doubt due to his large, expressive eyes that constantly convey a sense of worry, as if he at all points is scared he's not hitting the exact same moves Mercury did. The prosthetics are disastrous - it feels like Malek is constantly having to fight back against his ridiculous teeth that only distract instead of making the performance more genuine. It's a performance typical of biopics of this quality, in that there's no interiority. It's only concerned with the image, not the person.

I wish I could even say the concert scenes are good, but while it's a little fun to see people essentially cosplay Queen while listening to their music on incredibly loud cinema speakers (which is perhaps the only genuine, unfettered joy this film can provide) all of the live performance scenes are plagued with garish CGI crowds, which are just another ugly addition to the already poor and overproduced visuals.

Were Mercury still alive, I imagine he'd hate how this movie twists his life to fulfil the most basic, generic, bland music biopic conventions. If you want any remotely interesting insight into the psyche or relationships of the members of Queen, I suggest you look elsewhere. Bohemian Rhapsody just assumes you already know how great Queen are, hence why there's no external conflict, no sense of their socio-cultural impact or artistic legacy, and why their rise is presented as little more than an inevitability, making no attempt to confront the legend at all. This whole film is just a running through the motions, a vanity project for the remaining members of Queen that has the gall to call itself a tribute to the very man it seems insistent on doing a disservice to. It's difficult not to roll your eyes when the band refer to Freddie as a legend, only for him to respond with "we're all legends". It's very easy to acknowledge how legendary Queen were. What makes Bohemian Rhapsody so disappointing is that it never thinks to ask why.

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