“Bohemian Rhapsody”: No Escape From Reality

Bohemian Rhapsody!

Spot all the deeply meaningful moments with mirrors and win prizes!

Off the top of my head, here’s a quick ranking of the Best Picture winners and nominees directed by alleged sexual villains that I’ve watched to date:

  1. The Pianist
  2. Platoon
  3. Chinatown
  4. Born on the Fourth of July
  5. JFK
  6. Annie Hall
  7. Bohemian Rhapsody
  8. Midnight in Paris

…there could be more I’ve forgotten, or whose allegations are off my radar. I know there’re a few I’ve yet to see, such as Hannah and Her Sisters. Hollywood’s moral turpitude is nigh impossible to reconcile with single-minded pursuits such as my annual Oscar Quest, in which I watch every new Best Picture nominee no matter what, come what may, even if I have opinions and regrets about it in advance.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Mr. Robot‘s Rami Malek IS Freddie Mercury in the occasionally true story of how he co-founded Queen and turned them into superstars, became a stratospheric legend unto himself, sang all the famous songs you know by heart, and for the first few decades of his life never made a bad decision and was right about positively everything. Occasionally guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) would contribute some awesome licks, but otherwise it was Mercury on the rise.

Eventually, of course, we get to the part where Meanwhile Behind the Scenes, Things Were Falling Apart. Mercury lets stardom get to his head, discovers the joys of unchecked rock-‘n’-roll debauchery, alienates himself from his best friends, and generally becomes the sort of clichéd recluse who dies alone and unloved and with enough toxins in their system to murder all of the Rockettes at once. But wait! Then the grim specter of his HIV-positive diagnosis leads to a complete turnaround, a mending of fences, and a shot-for-shot recreation of half the 20-minute set they played at Live Aid in 1985, crammed with obsessive details from the Pepsi cups on his piano to his armpit hair. And then they all lived happily ever after until Mercury later died in a Dragnet text crawl.

But through his songs, his musical immortality was guaranteed, with no small thanks to his bandmates, portrayed largely as saints whose worst offense is that sometimes they found their singer an insufferable diva. On a totally unrelated note, at least two of the band’s non-Freddie members had producer credits as well as creative control over the proceedings, even after original director Bryan Singer was fired and replaced with Dexter Fletcher, whose next project will be the Elton John biopic Rocketman, which definitely appears to take place in the same fanciful cinematic universe.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Rounding out the band are former child star Joe Mazzello (Jurassic Park) as Deaky the Bassist and Ben Hardy (Archangel from X-Men: Apocalypse) as drummer Roger Taylor, not to be confused with drummer Roger Taylor from Duran Duran. Working in the back office are Aiden Gillen (The Wire, Game of Thrones) as band manager John Reid, and Tom Hollander (The Night Manager) as good-guy lawyer Jim “Miami” Beach, who later became their manager, and still has the job to this day. Rooting for Mercury from the sidelines is Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) as his longtime, long-suffering girlfriend.

Antagonists on the way to rock deification include Allen Leech (Downton Abbey) as Reid’s sidekick, who later became Mercury’s personal manager, lover, and later emotional jailer; and an unrecognizable Mike Myers as the record company exec who thought “I’m in Love with My Car” would make a better radio single than “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Even more unrecognizable is a cameo from Queen’s current de facto lead singer Adam Lambert as an ominous trucker.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • QUEEN RAAAWWWKS! WOOOOOOOOOOOO!
  • Fame is the mind-killer
  • Self-indulgence = bad
  • The best bands are like family. You can’t always quit them easily, and maybe sometimes you shouldn’t.

…and there’s the subject of Mercury’s sexual proclivities. While those developments are kept at a strictly PG-13 level — i.e., discussed but moderately invisible — whatever rumor-mongers who claimed before the film’s release that the film avoided Mercury’s homosexuality altogether may also have been the same misinformed Chicken Littles or downright liars who swore that First Man never showed the American flag on the moon. That aspect of his life gets a bit overshadowed by the horrors of drug-fueled bacchanalia and BDSM clubs, but it’s in there.

Overall, though, the entire point of this film is the Music of Queen. Very few songs are played in their entirety, but pretty much all the hits are at least excerpted. We hear multiple takes of assorted measures from “Bohemian Rhapsody” itself, the invention of that funky “Another One Bites the Dust” bass line, and a surprising amount of “Radio Ga-Ga”. I don’t currently own any Queen albums except a dubbed cassette of one of their many greatest-hits packages, but I can’t deny the appeal of hearing tunes cranked up in a theater, where they often sound 100 times better than they do on my home equipment, because my family won’t let me buy speakers that size, and even if they did, I’d always have to keep them turned down to volume 0.6.

Nitpicking? One might hope a film celebrating the Mercurial ideals of unbridled creativity and trailblazing theatricality would exhibit those traits itself. Bohemian Rhapsody is not here to reinvent the musical biopic. It’s here as a vehicle for the Music of Queen. We certainly hear the Music of Queen, but it’s held aloft on a fairly ordinary pedestal. Other than one swirly world-tour montage well aware of its own visual wackiness, viewers my age or older have seen this film a few times before — the road to the charts, the ups and downs, the tears, the schmaltz, the feel-good ending For Fans By Fans — but with other superstars and their genres plugged in.

As with the average biopic, musical or not, the film is also no substitute for actual history books. According to the “Historical Inaccuracies” section of the film’s Wikipedia page, screenwriters have mixed and matched parts of Mercury’s life, moving them up and down the timeline to manufacture conflicts and climaxes where needed, particularly in the largely uneventful mid-’80s, which had far fewer perfectly juxtaposed major developments in reality than they do here. I, for one, would be pretty upset if I were one of Queen’s first three bassists, all erased from the history of the Music of Queen of Earth-2.

Again, I suppose that’s part and parcel of the biopic experience, but I’d think writers who previously brought us such Best Picture nominees as The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Theory of Everything, and Darkest Hour could perhaps mine such famous lives in a more straightforward manner and achieve faithful yet compelling results without such egregious remixing. That’s me being an idealistic fussbudget, I know.

The biggest distraction came from the film’s Oscar-nominated editing, in which one of the guiding principles was that ordinary conversations are awesome to watch if you julienne-slice them into speedy, one-second chunks. I ran into at least three different Twitter discussions before I saw it, one of which saw recognition in wider media, that showcased and tore down so much unnecessary, distracting, short-attention-span, ’80s-music-video cuts. Some moments of basic band conversations made the fight scenes in Batman Begins look like Marvel/Netflix tracking shots. I have no idea why it was considered anathema to focus on any one character for more than a single sentence, but all those jittery switch-ups drove me up a wall.

So what’s to like? With or without the Music of Queen, this biopic would’ve come and gone as quickly as Gotti did (albeit with less scorn) if not for its ultimate secret weapon: Rami Malek. Virtually imbued with the resurrected spirit of Mercury from beyond, Malek commands the screen as an indefatigable human dynamo who plugs himself into every scene and anyone willing to jack in to his frequency, throws the switch, and watches the sparks explode around him with wide-eyed zeal. He bounces and writhes and struts and cuts an imposing figure, he overcomes a cumbersome but accurate dental appliance, and he embodies the sheer thrill of an artist who knows he’s a genius and is trying to wait patiently for the world to catch up but gets so visibly restless that he just has to release that pent-up energy somehow, and the microphone and the camera bear the full brunt of the artist’s overload unleashed.

Honestly, I wish Malek had been surrounded with a more outrageous film, one allowed to take as many chances as Queen did themselves. I have no idea which parts were Singer’s and which parts were Fletcher’s, but a mid-production change in directors rarely leads to quality results no matter how talented the “before” and “after” guys are. (See also: Justice League.) Coasting on the Music of Queen as the troubled film’s saving grace feels like a half-hearted way to salute them, a move that would’ve had Mercury himself yelling “CUT!” every few minutes and insisting on a thousand changes that would make it all really sing.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Bohemian Rhapsody end credits, but you get the next best thing: the Music of Queen! Two more Queen songs! Because that’s what’s really important, cranking those tunes and forgetting all about everything else — your troubles and your baggage, and everyone else’s baggage too. You can just kick back, listen, relax and imagine you’re writing all the most boring people out of your own timeline.

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