Movie review: “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)


“How many more ‘Galileos’ do you want?!”

Since it was a foregone conclusion that any review I might attempt to write for the Queen/ Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody would consist of an opening excess of “full disclosure” statements, I suppose we might as well start. First: Freddie Mercury is my favorite singer of all time. Period, full stop. I don’t honestly even know who qualifies as runner-up. Most likely it is a ten-way tie, with the pack mired ten miles or so behind our winner. Beyond his famous flamboyance and extravagance, his room-leveling outward confidence and revolutionary, simultaneously invigorating and hypnotic stage presence, there is the undeniable fact of Mercury’s voice, a dynamic, multi-octave nuclear missile of near-unlimited range that unquestionably ranks among the very greatest in the history of recorded music. That this magnificent strutting peacock with the otherworldly talent should also so often feel painfully and debilitatingly alone in private is an irony cruel beyond description, though not exactly front page news, and, as it turns out, not always the steadiest foundation on which to base a film of his life. We’ll get to that. Second: Though my enmity is hardly limited to musicians, I tend to especially loathe them as the subjects of film biopics for the same reason I generally can’t stand cover bands, which is that I am in love with, and in awe of, the intangible greatness of the original, and know each line and note and gesture by heart to an almost defensive degree. I am not only unable to reliably suspend my disbelief in such situations, I am often actively unwilling. I require extensive convincing.

BohemianPosterBiopics also almost inevitably condense and hopelessly sanitize some of the most fascinating aspects of their subjects’ lives. It’s a frustrating trade-off, sacrificing depth and scale for the implied privilege of watching a bunch of actors play an elaborate game of dress-up. The entrance is so often the same. Slow motion shots of a familiar profile or silhouette, moving through his/her element on a path toward some sort of stage, invariably filmed from behind or in a way that obscures facial features.* Any lingering glance or incongruent detail can prematurely break the illusion, and biopic peddlers rely naturally on the mojo and starpower of their subjects, seeking to cast a spell that’ll maintain a tenuous hold on the audience once they realize they are watching an actor. To accomplish this, one of two strategies is usually employed, if rarely both: make the actor look like the subject, or make the performance feel like the subject. Though their leads did bear passable resemblance from afar, films like Ali (bulked-up Will Smith thankfully shared a modicum of the Champ’s charisma) and Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix, largely unadorned aside from Johnny Cash’s black wardrobe) chose the latter path. Bohemian Rhapsody, by comparison, is a movie almost entirely premised on brassy, meticulous mimicry, and the predictable, practically Pavlovian, desired response of its viewer to exceptional rock and roll. It is the most expensive and extensive filmed appearance by a celebrity impersonator in recent memory, and, however accomplished in that and other areas, succeeds in much the same way, on almost the exact same terms.

*The trailer for the forthcoming Elton John biopic “Rocketman” is a nearly shot-for-shot copy of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” previews, only without so incendiary a guest of honor and, hence, with about a quarter of the resulting sizzle. The longform “Bohemian Rhapsody” trailer was far and away the best thing I saw in 2018 in terms of getting me properly hyped for a forthcoming title. Suffice it to say the gap between expectations and reality was substantial.

In the twenty-seven years since Freddie Mercury passed away from AIDS-complicated pneumonia, his life has been laid bare and studied in a way he wouldn’t allow when he was alive. The resurgence and widespread, generation-crossing recognition of Queen’s music, though gratifying and much deserved, was only part of it. Freddie’s story – the shy, artistic son of upright immigrant parents from Zanzibar who reinvented himself in working-class England as a rock star’s rock star, and whose fiery talent, unquenchable joie de vivre, and epic, ungovernable personal style made him a worldwide icon and inspiration to marginalized audiences both gay and straight, even as his appetites and inadequacies courted controversy – is objectively amazing. It is far too much for a film already bursting at the seams to contain, and Bohemian Rhapsody, despite the built-in advantages of its subject and authorized soundtrack, is too conventional, and, at times, noticeably timid, to even try. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) has a keen eye for certain period details, even as he repeatedly disregards continuity in the course of charting Queen’s career, but seems content to present a fairly bloodless, by-the-numbers recounting of fragmented facts and innuendos (pun intended, Queen fans) instead of the skyscraping knockout Rhapsody could’ve been. The movie definitely begins too early – its staid, place-setting opening ten minutes are both uncomfortable and interminable – and probably ends too abruptly, bypassing in the process any number of interesting stops along Freddie’s path from self-confidence to self-aggrandizement to self-abuse to self-flagellation to self-respect, always relying on stirring sleight of hand impressions and a truly killer soundtrack to bail it out.

Many of Singer’s issues are matters of obvious, if annoying, dramatic convenience – perhaps the cost of doing business in the biopic realm – and none of them are the fault of, or should in any way disparage the efforts of, Rami Malek, who does exhaustive and exhausting work if not absorbing then projecting all of Mercury’s various world famous exteriors, appearing equally at home in both his garish 1970s arena rock wardrobe and polarizing, short-cropped/ full mustache 1980s club look, approximating his inimitable aerobic stage moves right down to the smallest detail and grandest gesture, and even taking a home run cut at his warbling speech patterns. Whether or not we believe Malek is actually singing – we don’t – we still want to because Malek so clearly wants us to. Singer’s masterstroke, of course, is to invest Rhapsody’s entire climax in Queen’s legendary set at the 1985 Live Aid charity concert, which is often cited as the greatest single performance in the history of rock and roll. Brother, does it deliver. The movie’s most effective sequences otherwise involve the band’s mysterious “process”, which might as well involve pixies and tinkering elves for all the insight provided alongside the undeniable kick of watching Queen experiment with shoestring budget studio trickery during the making of their eponymous debut, spontaneously concoct “We Will Rock You” during an afternoon spent in house with their wives and girlfriends, or use the irresistible bassline to John Deacon’s “Another One Bites the Dust” to quell an argument. Malek as Mercury effectively owns the movie, painstakingly manufacturing enough charm to power his performance whereas Freddie effortlessly drew his from some bottomless internal reservoir, and is way worth watching so long as the real life spotlight is bright.

He doesn’t fare as well in the quieter moments, or the particularly contentious ones, though Singer wisely keeps those to a minimum, instead wrapping up his mildly cautionary tale of PG-13 homosexual decadence in a paean to the literal magic of rock and roll. Freddie meets lover and lifelong friend Mary Austin (a radiant Lucy Boynton) the same night he first encounters the band Smile, featuring future bandmates Brian May (an uncanny Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (a forever young Ben Hardy), which just so happens to be the night their singer quits, allowing him to spontaneously harmonize his way in. Freddie idly conjures the iconic piano riff to “Bohemian Rhapsody” years before either writing or recording the song, while lying on the floor with Austin, and later galvanizes both band and management (Aiden Gillen from Game of Thrones) in its favor against an over-the-top record executive amalgam (Mike Myers) who rails that its six-minute length will kill their careers as radio stars. Freddie grows elusive, obnoxious, and grandiose, and begins increasingly self-medicating, as well as slinking off to shame-party with any male bystander who gives him a second glance. Few enough people on Earth ever failed to look twice at Freddie Mercury, so you get a sense of the social calendar with which he was faced, and why he might have felt especially empty when everyone finally went home. Rhapsody concludes with the fictions that Freddie’s middling solo career actually broke Queen up, when, instead, 1984’s The Works proceeded apace and provided its final big MTV hits**, that Live Aid, on a week’s rehearsal, was the band’s years-awaited reunion gig, and that Freddie privately announced his AIDS diagnosis during the lead-up, when, in fact, it was at least a year later. These diversions are both plentiful and needlessly distracting.*** They may make Freddie’s story “cleaner”, but it’s hard to assert they make it better.

**One of which – “I Want to Break Free”, with its groundbreaking video featuring the lads in hilarious drag as, by turns, frumpy and saucy British housewives – the movie even references. Plus, how else would the CGI throng during the Live Aid finale have known what “Radio Ga-Ga” even was, let alone how to clap in breathtaking unison to its anthemic chorus?

***My built-in pablum detector practically exploded during the scene when, on the morning of Live Aid – you know, just on his merry way to Wembley – Freddie casually dropped by his parents’ London flat to make hasty, tidy amends and even received an unsolicited attaboy from his heretofore disapproving father. Did you know that Freddie reconnected with the sympathetic partygoer who would become his long term partner immediately before as well? Or that this boyfriend-to-be would watch Queen’s triumphant performance from just offstage, flanked by a pregnant Mary Austin and her buttoned-down, entirely reasonable new husband? I don’t want to suggest these anecdotes didn’t actually occur because I honestly neither know nor care to research, but they certainly still strike me as dramatically convenient.

The temptation with a larger-than-life figure like Freddie Mercury is surely to go all out and bold, and then, when in doubt, to go bolder. You might well think there is no way to overplay Freddie Mercury, and, in my humble opinion, you’d be mistaken. Bohemian Rhapsody offers up compelling evidence amidst nerve-tickling nostalgia, skipping hand-in-hand. Here was a man who lived his life in front of an adoring audience, both onstage and off, as a partial coping mechanism for deep feelings of inadequacy, and nearly drowned in his various excesses. Malek plays him to the hilt in a performance of almost punishing physicality, where the hollowed-out moments that inevitably follow the stage turn desolate not necessarily by the fact of Mercury’s isolation but by his clearly implied simultaneous desire and inability to perform. For someone, for anyone. A braver film might have sought to probe Mercury’s gentle soul instead of focusing on his overcompensating, admittedly unforgettable surface and amazing artistic gifts. Bohemian Rhapsody, which is not a brave film but, rather, a seriously intended, competently made, boilerplate crowd pleaser, leaves me at a disadvantage. I wanted to both like and dislike it more than I did. Singer succeeds in what he set out to do, however, in that his weird cover band breaks rank and becomes a tribute band… although, overall, as ever, I require excess convincing.

There is a single moment in the spectacular climax at Live Aid that flashes by so quickly it might have been subliminal, wherein movie Queen seems to be replaced mid-song by the genuine article, standing on their marks and affecting their poses instead of the other way around. It is over and done in an instant, reality subverted and reset, and may well have been a figment of my imagination. Though I have my suspicions, I’m not going to do the research necessary to either confirm or deny, in part because it pleases me so much to think that Singer spliced this archival footage into his movie on purpose in an attempt to further solidify and even purify the homage. Mercury’s onstage moves have been catalogued and picked apart over years and years of repeat viewings (To wit: I actually watched the Live Aid set on YouTube the other day for simple fun and because it was recommended, never quite realizing I was also doing research in advance of this review), and their duplication in the Rhapsody finale is the near flawless culmination of an otherwise flawed movie, representing an exorbitant amount of work and craft too great to be dismissed out of hand. Yeah, I know that the pulsating ocean of fans in the Wembley wide shots was entirely computer-generated, not to mention the stadium, the stage, and probably everything else short of the piano stool and old school Pepsi can. Singer wants us to feel for a second what it was like to be Freddie Mercury, arguably at the pinnacle of his extraordinary life, and, for just a second, I willingly let him succeed.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) 2.5/4 stars

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