Andrea is a film scholar who obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analysing the music biopic genre.
We are now currently post-Oscars and, as often is the case, the film community is divided over the winners. Rami Malek particularly had a successful awards season by picking up six awards, most notably the Oscar for best actor with his portrayal of Queen frontman, and glam rock icon, Freddie Mercury. Although the academy clearly thought highly of Malek’s performance, the critical reception of Bohemian Rhapsody amongst the rest of the film community wasn’t so clear cut. For example, without citing remark after remark of bad press and by simply looking at the three most popular web review indexes (sites), Imdb gave the film a very respectable 8.1/10, Rotten Tomatoes handed over a decent 61% fresh rating, and Metacritic were not so decided with an unsettling 49%. This article is not so much a personal review of the film, it's more of an analysis of the content of Bohemian Rhapsody in retrospect of the common major issues raised by viewings of the film.
Another Biopic Bites The Dust
A reason behind Bohemian Rhapsody’s mixed reviews can be due to the fact that the way narrative enfolds is nothing particularly new. The film essentially falls into the usual formulaic narrative of the rock biopic. A couple of musical misfits find each other, they find fame, they eventually and inevitably conclude tragically, usually through the death of the iconic leading member. Unfortunately, Bohemian Rhapsody obtains this overdone narrative arc. Ironically, however, formulas are critiqued in the film by the protagonist Freddie (Rami Malek) with his explanation to the fictional chief owner of EMI Ray Foster (Michael Myers) that “formulas are a complete and utter waste of time.” If only the credited director Bryan Singer shared the same perspective. Furthermore, and not to speculate, but this may be one of the true reasons behind Singer's firing, and for the project to be handed over to another director in Dexter Fletcher.
It's A Hard Life
Although the narrative is formulaic, a lot can be said about the film's emphatic exposition. As seen in some of Singer’s older work, most notably in The Usual Suspects, the film begins with its peak climactic moment; Queen's Live Aid performance. The scene is a montage that cuts between shots of a stage crew setting up the concert, and tracking shots of Freddie’s preparation for the event. As a whole, the scene establishes and corresponds with the mythology of Freddie Mercury. Especially within the tracking shots, there are several iconographies for Queen fanatics to identify. The first being a hanged portrait of Marlene Dietrich in Freddie’s luxurious house. This was a major influence behind the album sleeve of the band's sophomore album ‘Queen II’, and most notably, the chiaroscuro aesthetic for the music video of their song which shares the title of the film. As well as this, the camera pays great attention to the minute details within Freddie's costume. All of Mercury's idiosyncratic details within his costume are replicated onto Malek, with his mustache, tight white tank top, blue jeans, and his spiked belt and armband. The scene ends with a wide-shot of a packed-out Wembley Stadium. This final shot essentially solidifies the extent of the singer's popularity by showing a congregation of screaming fans who adore him.
Although the film begins in such a fantastical way, a cruel contrast of Freddie’s past life as an immigrant baggage handler is shortly presented. The setting is shifted from a packed out stadium to a mundane Heathrow airport. As with many music biopics, the convention of anchoring dates and times on screen establishes this temporal shift. Not only is there a change in time, but there is also a crucible change in mood. With the exception of Freddie's high-vis jacket, the colour palette of the scene is bound to dull pale whites and greys. Furthermore, instead of receiving cheers from thousands of fans, Freddie receives racial abuse from his taunting co-workers.
Too Much Love Will Kill You
In regard to the portrayal of Mercury’s private life is in the film, there appears to be a common criticism of how Mercury’s homosexuality has a direct effect on the protagonist’s narrative arc. The topic of sex and sexual exploration is an integral part of any rock biopic narrative as many of the subjects of these films were mythologized sexual deviants and/or free-spirited Lotharios. However, some critics of the film have concluded that when Freddie expresses his homosexual desires he causes his own narrative falling action. When this occurs, Freddie is placed in a far worse situation than the straight path he created when being in a hetero relationship with his wife Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). For the sake of playing devil’s advocate, this is somewhat true in regards to the narrative especially during the moments that focus on Freddie’s unsuccessful solo career and his growing relationship to manager and lover Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). However, here lies the issue with this reading. This point can only be justified when referring to moments that involve this precise character. Therefore, it appears that the preferred reading is that a dichotomy is presented between Paul and Mary Austin. Mary is crucially a catalyst for much of Freddie’s success. She is the influence behind the song ‘Love of my Life’ and generally encourages creativity from Freddie throughout the film, most notably by informing him of the Live Aid concert offer.
Paul, on the other hand, is presented as Queen’s homogenized Yoko Ono. He encourages drug indulging habits, forces the break-up of Queen (which actually never happened) by influencing Freddie to pursue a solo career and keeps him completely in the dark about Live Aid. Although Mercury's homosexuality most definitely did cause himself issues both politically in 1970s conservative Britain, as well as tragically affecting his health, it can be argued that it is more specifically one toxic relationship that causes a narrative demise in Bohemian Rhapsody rather than all his homosexual explorations.
Who Wants To Live Forever?
Similar to how a spectator can piece together information to have a specific reading of a narrative, music biopic’s can mitigate moments of a musician’s life to fabricate an emotive and commercial narrative. This is definitely apparent in Bohemian Rhapsody and it has deservedly received a vast amount of criticism for this. Much of the criticism has been directed towards the manner in which Mercury’s tragic contraction of the aids virus has been manipulated for the film’s narrative. In the lead up to the climactic Live Aid performance, there is a rather depressing montage which is accompanied by the song ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’. The images consist of a meek Freddie watching news reports and visiting a doctor. It has to be noted that analyzing the fidelity of any biopic can be considered a frivolous process as several details of the subjects life will always be changed for poetic effect. However, having Mercury diagnosed before the Live Aid performance, rather than in 1987 essentially 2 years post-performance, changes the context of the band's most acclaimed performance completely. Rather than just being a glorification of Queen’s rhapsodized talent as live performers, the concert becomes an “against all odds” comeback for Freddie. This is further enhanced through the editing with a plethora of reaction shots of every character who isn’t Freddie. By portraying Freddie’s struggle both vocally and emotionally in the lead up to Live Aid due to his illness, narrative tensions are set bizarrely for a widely renowned moment of success in music history.
It is difficult to ridicule Malek’s performance as he does portray an uncanny likeness to Mercury, and more specifically how Mercury acted publically. As mentioned earlier the costume plays a huge role in reanimating Mercury for the screen. However, make-up is also crucial as a lot of attention is paid towards Mercury’s famous overbite. Throughout the film, Malek uses prosthetic front teeth and although it does make his dialogue at times a little incomprehensible, he successfully captures Mercury's rather well-spoken dialect, especially when referring to others as “darling”.
Fat Bottomed Truckers
Where Malek truly dissolves into the image of Mercury is during the film's performance scenes. An important convention of the music biopic is musical performances. A fantastic aspect of Bohemian Rhapsody of which the film can be praised for is that it has so many of these performances that it could almost be conceived as more of a concert film than a rock biopic. This abundance of performances places the focus of the film on Freddie’s talent as a musician rather than his private hedonism. However, explorations of Freddie's private desires are mixed in-between the performances. This is a common convention within music biopics with the purpose to either show a direct influence behind the song and/or to parallel an aspect of the subject's private life. The most banal example of this is shown during Queen’s tour of America. Freddie uses a petrol station pay phone to catch up with his fiancé Mary but he is soon distracted by a gazing trucker who is bizarrely cast as the current frontman of Queen Adam Lambert. The two lustfully glance at one another, then the gaze is only disrupted by the closing of the men’s toilet door. Although these images are accompanied by the track 'Fat Bottomed Gilrs', this scene is about Freddie beginning to explore his homosexuality, therefore juxtaposing the lyrical content of the song. The editing enhances this juxtaposition, as the preceding shot of the Trucker closing the door is one of Mary doing the exact same motion, however, the shot ends with a closed door that says "men"... and it's just waiting to be opened.
The Show Must Go On... Again.
There are several ways to approach re-representing acclaimed staged performances in music biopics. Bohemian Rhapsody applies the most popular and least challenging approach of miming over the original recording. This process is unintentionally uncovered in the film during the bands first televised performance on Top Of The Pops. Freddie and co have a dispute with the BBC producers over the fact they have to lipsync over their recording. Yet another ironic comment on what’s happening with the film within the film itself. It begs the question over whether or not Bryan Singer is doing this to intentionally critique the genre. However, due to the amount of music biopic pitfalls this film falls into, it's rather unlikely.
As for the film being similar to the concert film genre, this cannot be truer in regards to the final scene of the film, the Live Aid concert. As mentioned earlier the narrative of the film is mitigated to romanticize this piece of the band’s history. Regardless of this bizarre change in Queen's lineage, a large amount of screen time is rightfully dedicated to re-representing the Live Aid concert as it is arguably the bands most acclaimed performance. With exception of two tracks, ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ and ‘We Will Rock You’, this filmic performance is almost track for track of the original. It’s slightly unexpected as due to the heightened dramatization of Freddie’s tragedy there is an expected fade to black moment after the first song in the performance which is aptly a piano rendition of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. However, the performance just keeps going. As well as the music, fine minute details are replicated such as the Pepsi and beer cups on top of Freddie’s piano, and more brilliantly Malek provides like for like Mercury idiosyncrasies with each and every step on stage. To highten the sense of a concert film, the caretaker director Dexter Fletcher uses both ariel shots of a packed out Wembley and more intimate close-ups and midshots of the audience singing and emotionally reacting to the performance. Essentially solidifying the singer’s love and importance to his audience, and providing the same purpose of the final shot in the opening scene.
On watching Bohemian Rhapsody, many of the usual music biopic questions are raised. I.e, "did that actually really happen?", "wasn't that song released after that moment?", "I thought this was a true story?" etc. Undoubtedly the film is as cliche as the genre can provide. However, it can be argued that a vital element of Bohemian Rhapsody that trumps a majority of music biopics is its emphasis on the subject's music. Due to the number of public performances celebrated in the film, a platform is set for Rami Malek to provide a spectacular performance that the auidience, especially if they are Queen fans, have already seen. Therefore being the reason why Malek did not walk away from the award season empty-handed.
© 2019 Andrea Sciambarella