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Movie Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Freddie Mercury, and Rami Malek, deserve so much better than Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody
Directed by Bryan Singer
In Theatres

First the good.

Rami Malek is a treasure. His performance as Freddie Mercury is Bohemian Rhapsody's strongest asset. He throws himself completely into the role. And it's not mere imitation. It's deeper than that. He embodies Freddie's insecurities and arrogance, his off the chart charisma and self-doubt. He struts with his head held high but somehow conveys those moments when the confidence was used as armour. Mr. Malek convincingly plays Freddie as a twenty-four year old baggage handler and as one of the world's biggest rock stars as he approached forty. Mr. Malek's name might join the conversation when there's talk of Paul Dano in Love and Mercy or Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line or the entire cast of Straight Outta Compton or Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There or Sam Riley in Control. Mr. Malek's performance is outstanding and he is a treasure.

And Lucy Boynton is amazing and is also a treasure. Her Mary Austin feels so real, so heartbreaking. The love between Mary Austin and Freddie Mercury feels real, feels tangible. He haunts her life, never able to commit to her, never able to fully let her go because of the depth of his emotional love for her and his dependence on her. Lucy Boynton plays Ms Austin as heartbroken, as concerned, and exhausted by being his only unconditional friend for years. There will be a lot of talk about Rami Malek's performance in Bohemian Rhapsody, but maybe Lucy Boynton should be in the conversation as well.

There are some other fine performances in Bohemian Rhapsody. And the movie is entertaining. Shallow and vanilla, but entertaining. And it ends with a recreation of footage that can be found on YouTube. You may walk out of the movie wanting to listen to some more Queen songs. You may even walk out of the movie saying "that was a fine film, I had a fine time". If the only function of Bohemian Rhapsody was to move some Queen merchandise, was to sell some Queen records, to get some people to stream some Queen on Spotify or wherever, Bohemian Rhapsody served its function. But after eight years of development, multiple scripts, multiple directors and producers and stars, after eight years of hearing about how this movie was going to be a proper tribute to one of the Great Entertainers of Ever, Bohemian Rhapsody is a failure. 

The movie fails as biography, it fails as story telling, and it fails as tribute. 

Freddie Mercury deserved better than this movie. It's bland. Vanilla. Formulaic. And revisionist. 

The movie begins on July 13, 1985, as Queen takes the stage at Live Aid. And, like so many music biopics before it, we jump back in time to a formative moment in the artist's life. This device was parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story for a reason. Anyway. We jump back to 1970 when young Farrokh Bulsara defies his conservative parents to go see bands. Queen is formed, fame and fortune and everything that goes with it are acquired. Bohemian Rhapsody is biopic as greatest hits. 

Some high points in the film are the ones that show the creative process. But, as with so many things in this movie, these moments have to be taken as maybe not the factual truth. As a story telling device they are lovely. John Deacon (Joseph Mazzelo) playing the bass line that would become Another One Bites the Dust to cut through the rest of the band's arguing. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) explaining that he wants to write a song that the audience can perform with them and getting his bandmates and their partners to do that stomp-stomp-clap-pause thing that is so addictive. Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) trying to hit a higher Galileo. Coins and beer on drum skins. Everyone making fun of I'm in Love With My Car. These moments are nice, quite nice, and some of my favourite bits of the film. The film could have used more of them.

A huge problem with Bohemian Rhapsody is how trustworthy is the narrative? There are some weird inconsistencies. For example, Fat Bottomed Girls is the song played over the montage of Queen's first tour of America, a song that wouldn't be written for another three years. This isn't nitpicking, trust me. Killer Queen, a song hardly heard in the movie, was Queen's first major hit in America and the reason the tour was green lit in the first place. Other weirdness includes We Will Rock You being recorded in 1980 when it had come out in 1977, and Freddie's illness being diagnosed in 1985 when it was diagnosed in 1987. Nobody goes to a biopic expecting truth, but these divergences from reality end up cutting short or ignoring actual moments from reality that would make great cinematic moments. By moving the recording of We Will Rock You to 1980 deprives everyone of witnessing the meeting of Freddie Mercury and Sid Vicious, a moment that would have been great cinematically. It also cuts out the struggle of a band being forced to change their sound not by their record label but by their own competitiveness. The shadow of punk pushed Queen to become a band that continued to explore new sounds and grow artistically, unlike most of their contemporaries. 

Again, this isn't nitpicking. Trust me. I've deleted all of the nitpicking from this thing. Anyway. This is all leads to the most frustrating part of the film, the fight over Freddie taking a contract to record solo albums and the break-up of Queen. It doesn't work dramatically, it doesn't work thematically, it doesn't work as story-telling. It never happened. Hell, by the time Freddie got his recording contract, Brian May and Roger Taylor had both released solo projects. By ignoring The Works and the incredible world tour that followed the album, the film ignores a band at the peak of their strength as performers and as artists and as song writers. And the film sacrifices actual dramatic moments for a false and lazy narrative. In their quest to twist the story of Queen into a biopic formula they not only throw out the truth, they toss out some of what made Freddie Mercury a legend. This was a man who, after being diagnosed with a AIDS, recorded opera. This was a man who recorded an album while on his death bed, slugging back Vodka and pouring his soul into every syllable. The Freddie as performed by Rami Malek would have walked on air with a 'Darling' for everyone he met while he faced death. The Freddie the filmmakers envisioned would have been just a man. 

Bohemian Rhapsody would be a complete and utter failure if not for Rami Malek and Lucy Boynton. The filmmakers wanted to bring Freddie Mercury down to Earth. Mr. Malek recognized that giants once walked the Earth. 

I cannot recommend Bohemian Rhapsody. I can recommend that you find Queen's performance at Live Aid online, hook your laptop or whatever up to your TV, crank up the volume, and remember the day when a band ruled all of creation for twenty minutes.