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Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
~Review by Grawlix (December 2018)
In the world of motion pictures, there are probably few phrases more loaded than “Based on a True Story”. And for movie watchers, there are few instances that drive this point home more clearly than watching a movie depicting a subject with which you are intimately familiar. I remember the first time I personally experienced this. Back in the mid-nineties, I rented Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. I was very familiar with Lee’s life (and death) at this point and was amazed at how flagrantly (it seemed) the movie diverged from fact. In hindsight, it wasn’t too bad, honestly. Most of the stuff depicted did happen, more or less, but it was in the wrong order, for matters of pacing I suppose. I guess you could call it the paradox of the biopic: anyone whose life is extraordinary enough to merit a cinematic retelling probably can’t have true justice done to it in the space of a mere two hours.
It’s probably germane at this point to mention that I’ve been a Queen fan since 1989. Freddie was still alive, then, and they had just released their album, The Miracle, to general apathy. Live Aid may have only been four years previous (Highlander, three) but the entertainment world has a short memory. Apparently it was a little different in their native England, but back then, and for a while, at least in America, Queen were seen as just another group of aging AOR dinosaurs making their final crawl into total irrelevance. Even Freddie’s death in late ‘91 (and the release of Wayne’s World a few months later) only afforded the band a short lived blip in their overall profile. After all, in 1991, the US was in its tenth year of Republican presidency, the Moral Majority and Christian Coalitions were very much things, and the average Joe Sixpack just wasn’t ready to embrace the legacy of a flamboyantly queer rock star who had died of AIDS (and not the good, noble AIDS, like Arthur Ashe got, but the bad kind, that gays got.). But yeah, let it be known, I know my Queen.
So with that in mind, let’s talk about Bohemian Rhapsody, the new Queen biopic directed (for the most part, anyway) by Bryan Singer. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Well, I guess it’s real enough, keeping in mind the caveats of biographical film making. Most of the events depicted probably did happen to a some degree although timelines are condensed and some events are shuffled around (an amusing early example being a 1974 tour montage being set to a song from 1978). The irony is that, for all the mega-success they experienced during their heyday, the actual story of Queen, as a band, is fairly mundane. The band’s lineup remained constant through their entire careers up until Freddie’s death with no violent, interpersonal drama to speak of (unlike, say, in the case of Oasis, or Cream, or the Everly Brothers, or Mötley Crüe). There was no crazy, drug-fueled destructive excess (unlike, say, The Who, The Doors, Black Sabbath, or Mötley Crüe). Nobody died under inauspicious circumstances (unlike, say, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, or, uh, Mötley Crüe … Jesus Christ Mötley Crüe were a train wreck weren’t they?). As such, when it comes to the history of the band, the story sticks to mostly benign happenings like the development of songs: Bohemian Rhapsody (explored at length), We Will Rock You, and Another One Bites the Dust, and the occasional battles with record executives.
I called this a Queen biopic, but it’s clear from the beginning that the focus will be on Freddie and the movie gamely tries to give a condensed version of his life, from his humble beginnings as a Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) born Parsi kid named Farrokh Bulsara on to super-stardom as the outlandish Freddie Mercury. His personal life is explored, including his long standing relationship with Mary Austin, the closest he came to having a wife, as well as the men in his life, Paul Prenter and, later, Jim Hutton, and even his well documented love for his cats. The movie also endeavors to contrast Freddie’s swagger while performing with his more introverted bearing when offstage, and his protracted internal conflict as he slowly, and sometimes painfully, came to terms with his sexuality. Rami Malek, who plays Freddie, seems up to whatever the script throws at him, but he never seems to really get the opportunity to cut loose. Part of this is likely due to the compressed timeline of the story that rarely leaves room for any sort of extended introspection, though the band’s insistence on handling some of the rougher edges of Mercury’s life with kid gloves probably also came into play. In some of the performance and studio scenes, you’d be forgiven for thinking they just spliced in some vintage footage – they’re that good, and Malek is totally on point. But in others the facsimile doesn’t come close, which I guess just stands at a testament to how irreplaceable Freddie truly was. Freddie for a scene may be doable, but Freddie for a whole movie just isn’t feasible. Also, kudos to whoever had the easily overlooked task of fabricating Rami’s mouth prosthetic because getting Freddie’s unique profile just so definitely went a long way towards maintaining the illusion.
One of the biggest problems with crafting a biopic out of a real life is the need for the story to have a villain. In Bohemian Rhapsody, that role is filled by Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), Freddie’s manager, and on-and-off lover, for about a decade starting in the late 70’s. Prenter is presented as a selfish and isolating influence, living high on the hog while encouraging Freddie’s more extravagant indulgences, pushing Freddie to leave the rest of a band behind to pursue a solo career, and keeping Freddie ignorant of the overtures from his friends, family, and the rest of Queen to return to the fold, particularly as the deadline for playing Live Aid, a megashow guaranteed to revitalize their careers, is looming on the horizon. The film even suggests that Queen broke up during this time, or very nearly did. When Freddie finally kicks Prenter to the curb, Prenter outs him in a series of tell-all interviews to the notoriously unscrupulous British press.
It’s true that Prenter was not very well liked by the rest of the band, and when his and Freddie’s relationship finally soured for good, he dished some of the dirt to British tabloids, but the film severely downplays the role Freddie (who claimed excess came naturally to him) had in his own questionable decisions. Likewise, Queen was facing something of a creative burnout by the early 80’s but they addressed this partially by each member (not just Freddie) exploring solo projects and partially by scaling their core output back from roughly an album a year to an album every two years. But they never really missed a beat and certainly were never in any real danger of breaking up.
Prenter died of AIDS in 1991, just a few months before Freddie himself did, so he’s not around to defend himself. And, while I wouldn’t call his portrayal in Bohemian Rhapsody a full on character assassination, the movie certainly nudged his own legacy towards the bus, if not fully throwing him under it.
Bohemian Rhapsody was mostly directed by Bryan Singer, who, ironically, has had his own share of sex-related controversies in recent years. He apparently got most of the movie finished before unexpectedly disappearing for a few days, ultimately being sacked with a few weeks of shooting left to go. He was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (probably better known as an actor, although he is presently directing Rocketman, an Elton John biopic) though the final product still bears Singer’s name. Like most other aspects of the film, the direction is competent, but not particularly prone to risk taking. The last fifteen minutes or so of the movie recreates the band’s triumphant performance at Live Aid, which is impressive for its scope and attention to detail, but I dare say was in danger of running a bit too long. By contrast, while I realize that Freddie was the focus, it would’ve been nice if the rest of the band got a little more attention from the screenplay. As it stands, often it seems like the other band members are more props than characters, which is a real shame since they actors portraying them (Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joe Mazzello) bear an uncanny resemblance to their real life counterparts. The movie does note Roger Taylor’s notorious wandering eye and oft temperamental attitude, but at least a mention of May’s Red Special guitar or Deacon’s Deacy Amp would have been worthy additions.
Probably the biggest what-if scenario when it comes to Bohemian Rhapsody is the one in which the originally cast Sacha Baron Cohen stayed on board as Freddie. The story goes that SBC wanted to do a more gritty R-Rated version of Freddie’s life, but the band understandably said no. In one sense it’s too bad, because it certainly could have been a compelling story. Arguably, Bohemian Rhapsody ends just as the real drama was beginning, and a well executed tale of a dying Freddie desperately trying to sing one more song could have put the movie into the Academy Award conversation (for what that’s worth, these days).
But on the other hand, it’s probably just as well. Freddie never got to take a proper victory lap, nor was he able to see Queen get the belated recognition and appreciation that they, as rock pioneers, so richly deserved (though how much of a role Freddie’s own death played in solidifying that very legacy is open to discussion), which is a damned shame, and Bohemian Rhapsody in its current state is probably the closest we’re going to get to rectifying that particular oversight. Perhaps there will come a day when a more nuanced Freddie Mercury biopic will be made, but for now, as a Queen fan, this is good enough.
Any way the wind blows….
Final Grade: B
Understand that Bohemian Rhapsody less of a chronicle and more of a celebration. As theater, it’s pretty milquetoast, with just enough drama to keep the narrative moving. But it works just fine as a primer for the uninitiated. And long time fans can revel in the fact that a great man, and a great band, are finally getting their due.
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