My Review of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)
News of a Queen biopic has been circulating for years, generating huge buzz and high expectations along with it. When the first set photos were released, the response was overwhelmingly positive, even more so once the first trailer dropped. Then a few days ago, the first critical reviews for Bohemian Rhapsody dropped, and the results were disappointing. These early reviews praised Rami Malek’s performance but rated the movie as a whole as subpar. However, that didn’t stop me from going to see it opening weekend, and not only did the film surpass my expectations, but I found it interesting that the movie itself makes a point of including a montage of bad reviews about the title song, which would become not only the band’s most famous track but also one of the most famous songs in music history. And like that song, this movie belongs to the fans who can ignore the historical inaccuracies and let the movie inspire them with its deep, personal messages and a dramatized retelling of history being made.
Bohemian Rhapsody: Trailer 1
Bohemian Rhapsody begins with the formation of the four famous members of the band, Queen, and ends with their historical 1985 performance at Live Aid. We follow the band’s rise to fame, the creation of their most famous songs, and their personal relationships. Most of the film centers around the band’s front man, Freddie Mercury, a young man who had immigrated with his family to England from Zanzibar and is looking to break into the music industry by sliding himself into the lead spot of a band that has just lost its singer. Together, they use a mixture of talent, charisma, and experimentation to create a groundbreaking sound, mixing genres and techniques which result in relatable, catchy, and unique songs unlike anything else being played on the radio before or since.
Defending their music is a constant battle, as is Freddie’s struggles with racism, homophobia, substance abuse, health issues, and even his physical appearance, all elements that are crucial to building his status as a musical icon yet are elements that he is constantly pushing to the background in order to keep his music front and center. Like any musical icon, success gives him acceptance from the world but slowly unravels his most meaningful relationships with his band, his former fiancé, Mary, and his family. As usual, it takes a substantial wake up call for him to make amends and come to terms with his successes and failures in order to pull off the performance that cements the Queen’s legendary status.
An Ad for Bohemian Rhapsody
First and foremost, this movie is fun. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and it’s fun to listen to. Each hit song is perfectly placed in the context of its featured scene, whether it be in a shoe-stomping montage or a dramatic exchange between two characters. It's funny and dramatic. Sometimes you think you're watching a concert. Other times, it's a character-driven story.
Mainly, though, it focuses on the most interesting aspects of the band’s career: performing, recording, and songwriting. The songs themselves are already well known so all you have to do to make it interesting is show the audience how it all came together, and it does, from the recording sessions to private songwriting moments to trying to convince the higher ups to trust in their audience to embrace their experimental sound. The band is as well known as they are because of this sound. They are not a product of a certain era, fad, or genre. They are the product of, as Malek’s Mercury puts it, “four misfits playing for other misfits.” Yet, somehow, even the non-misfits can appreciate as well. That’s not an easy feat to pull off, but it takes a special element that no record label can manufacture. It’s an organic spark of lightning captured in a musical bottle that transcends all expectation. At the same time, it is interweaving these personal relationships, the good with the bad but never losing its focus that it’s the story of four guys with different musical strengths and personalities. They may bicker and fight personally and creatively, but they never lose that friendship and that magic that occurs when they perform together.
Because so many of the darker elements of the movie are typical of a historical musician’s story, it would have been easy to get lost in the more controversial aspects of the band’s history, such as Freddie’s drug use and AIDS diagnosis, but if this movie tells you anything, it’s that regardless of how public a person’s persona, they have the right to decide how people view them and what to share with their fans. Had Mercury been alive to help produce this film like his band mates, I’m sure he would have been happy with the decisions to downplay his more personal struggles, yet still include them to help paint a picture of what it was like to be him.
Reordering some of the historical events was crucial to telling this particular story and its desire to culminate in the Live Aid performance in order to encompass everything that needed to be addressed about the band’s history. No biopic should be taken as gospel. All films must deter from the real events in some way in order to tell a cinematic version of the story. Condensing 15 years into two hours is not easy so liberties have to be taken. Maybe had I been a Queen connoisseur, it would have bothered me more, but from a storytelling perspective, it keeps things tight and on track.
It also strays from the formula by presenting Freddie and Mary’s relationship as one that remains strong and supportive despite their ups and downs. Mary isn’t the typical rock star girlfriend who watches him rise to fame and then comes across as a victim of his fame or an anchor holding him back. Nor does it make her a pushover or a wooden, unrealistic woman. She ends her romantic relationship with Freddie but never her support of him. He is hurt when she goes off to build a life for herself, just as she is hurt when he comes out to her, but neither of these actions are ones that they can help. The film never comments on the times or tries to push against them. Freddie accepts the world as it is, and he learns to make himself a part of it without losing himself in the process.
Freddie, while exuding confidence throughout the movie, does hit a particularly arrogant phase of the film, which can usually be hard to swallow, but between the performances and the storytelling which shows his unknowing manipulation behind the scenes, it keeps Freddie likable and sympathetic, especially when so many other aspects of his life are touched upon to almost give him permission to be self-destructive at this point in the film. The warts are shown and then worn proudly, showing us that it’s okay to be flawed. Our flaws can produce great work that lives on after us. Those who live short lives tend to live them large, cramming their triumphs and failures into a few short years. This is apparent in the film’s climax which recreates the Live Aid performance with startling accuracy, but you’re really trying to compare the on screen event to the ones you can watch on YouTube. By then, you’re just a member of the audience being blown away by the show.
Queen's Performance at Live Aid
Whatever awards are in store for the film’s lead or the movie itself, personally, I just hope that this movie endures the test of time. Like the song Bohemian Rhapsody, it will be considered an important piece of art that teaches us to cut against the grain of expectation and to follow our guts in the personal, professional, and creative choices that we make, that we live life on our terms and that others come to appreciate that, if not right away, then over time. That sense of integrity is everything that Queen stands for as a band, and it’s a quality that we should stand for as members of the human race.
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