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Non-Review Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody is more invested in being a fairly standard music biopic than with being a slightly more specific Queen biopic.

There’s a weird sense of familiarity that runs through Bohemian Rhapsody, which has nothing at all to do with its central characters and everything to do with the kind of story that it is telling. If anything, Bohemian Rhapsody will appear completely foreign and alien to dedicated fans of Queen, or anybody with even a passing knowledge of the bad’s history and discography. Instead, it will feel most comforting and familiar to the aficionados of the old tried-and-true biographical feature film formula memorably lampooned by Walk Hard.

Spotlighting its subject.

Bohemian Rhapsody repeatedly brushes up against conflicts between history as it occurred and the rhythms of that standard narrative template. In every single case, Bohemian Rhapsody chooses to side with the narrative template rather than the historical record. It is debatable whether there is anything inherently wrong with this, to be fair. This sort of film-making is an act of adaptation. It is often necessary to conflate, distort of fabricate events in order to convey an essential truth about some real-life person or character, because real life is not a narrative, despite best efforts to impose one upon it.

However, it is one thing to manipulate or distort the finer details of a narrative to hint at a deeper truth. It is another thing entirely to warp reality to fit an assembly blueprint that reveals next to nothing about any of its subjects.

A pale reflection of the man himself.

It is perhaps illustrative to focus on a couple of examples about how Bohemian Rhapsody chooses to move the pieces around the board in order to tell the story that it wants to tell while still using the names and likeness of historical figures. Perhaps the biggest one involves the presentation of Live Aid within the film. The famous (and iconic) charity gig is a focal point for Bohemian Rhapsody. It was the focal point of the first trailer. It is the opening scene of the film, which serves to sandwich the main body of the narrative.

This is a biographical film, and so this fits the template. Even audience members who have never enjoyed Walk Hard will recognise the standard “you’re gonna have to give him a moment, son; [Freddie Mercury] has to think about his entire life before he plays” set-up from virtually any other musical biography film. However, it is more than just that hackneyed trope. Bohemian Rhapsody understands the mythic quality of an event like Live Aid. Live Aid is something that reverberates in the national (and international) consciousness. It is a big moment. It is a moment that the audience will recognise.

A real live (aid) wire.

As such, it should be a big moment in this story. It should be the biggest moment in this story. Almost by default, Bohemian Rhapsody decides that the Live Aid concert will be its big moment of triumph, its crescendo, its third act climax. Indeed, the concert is so burned into the cultural memory that it can be discussed without fear of spoilers. It will be a triumph for Queen. It will be the moment where everything clicks into place for the band, where everything comes together, where all the set-up in the film finally pays off. And Live Aid is all of this not because any of that actually happened, but simply because it exerts gravity.

That mythic gravity exerts an influence on the story around it. If the concert at Wembley is to be the big triumphant moment, it needs to come in the wake of a series of dramatic setbacks. In order for Bohemian Rhapsody to feel like the mythic journey that it needs to be, the hero needs to be at his lowest point before scaling his greatest peak. This is a movie about fame, about music, about art, about tragedy. So everything has to come crashing down for Freddie Mercury before he pulls himself back up.

Band from television.

Reverse-engineering from that climax, and knowing the bullet point summary of Freddie Mercury’s life, it’s possible to map out that third act. Freddie Mercury will know that he has contract AIDS and will know that it is a death sentence, leaving him relatively little time to accomplish his goals. Freddie will betray the band in an act of hubris, by trying to launch a solo career, and will have to work hard in order to regain their trust. Everybody will go into that concert thinking that Queen is a collection of has-beens, but the band will prove them wrong. The narrative is so simple that it writes itself.

There are just a couple of problems with this narrative. Freddie Mercury did not receive his AIDS diagnosis until a year after Live Aid. Freddie’s solo career never threatened to break up the band; if anything, it helped keep the band together. Queen certainly weren’t considered a washed-up band on the verge of implosion before appearing at Live Aid; in fact, Mercury was recording Mister Bad Guy in parallel with the band’s The Works, which made it all the way to number two in the British charts, going two-times platinum.

No Remi Malek aforethought.

It isn’t that Bohemian Rhapsody fudges the details, it is that the film tells an entirely different – and far less interesting – story than its subject would seem to merit. Indeed, it seems possible to imagine the script for Bohemian Rhapsody as some sort of fill-in-the-gaps template, with a simple find-and-replace providing a suitable narrative for any artist imaginable. Ctrl + F for “Freddie Mercury”, “Queen” and “Live Aid”, replace with “Bruce Dickinson”, “Iron Maiden” and “the release of Brave New World.” It might take some smoothing, but there is a movie in there.

It is tempting to see this as an expression of the film’s troubled production history. Bohemian Rhapsody bounced around Hollywood for almost a decade before finally making it to screen, losing one leading man and a variety of directors. Even in its finished form, with a credit to Bryan Singer, the stories production history of Bohemian Rhapsody might support the bold description of “a directionless film.” Singer famous refused to show up to work during the shoot in the midst of rapidly escalating accounts of historical misconduct, leaving a lot of the heavy lifting to be done by executive producer Dexter Fletcher.

A Mercurial presence.

The true horror of this approach is the way in which it smooths out its central character, reducing Freddie Mercury to little more than an archetypal “great man of rock ‘n’ roll history” and reducing Queen to little more than a broad life-affirming mission statement. Indeed, Bohemian Rhapsody features a decidedly clunky sequence in which the band sit around a table and explain “what Queen really means” to a square record executive. “We’re four misfits who don’t belong together, we’re playing for other misfits. They’re the outcasts right at the back of the room. We’re pretty sure they don’t belong either. We belong to them.” Heavy.

Bohemian Rhapsody is invested in the idea of Freddie Mercury, but not the man himself. The film does acknowledge Freddie’s sexuality and identity, but in a surprisingly non-threatening and non-confrontational manner. Bohemian Rhapsody passingly acknowledges media scrutiny and innuendo, acknowledging the difficulties that Freddie faced in the context of the seventies and eighties. However, as much as the film insists that Freddie felt hemmed in by society and expectations, the movie never lets him breathe. It seeks to preserve him in plastic, as a pop monument rather than as a man.

Solid as a rock star.

Queen were a huge seventies and eighties rock band, one defined by excess, but Bohemian Rhapsody pitches them as PG-13 fodder. Bohemian Rhapsody largely acknowledges Freddie’s excess by absence. Freddie’s drug issues are acknowledged through the implication of the stains of cocaine left of glass tables rather than through the act of consumption. Freddie throws a single party in Bohemian Rhapsody; though he instructs his acolytes to “shake the freak tree and see what falls out”, the results seem rather tame. When the band admit that they want to leave, it might be because there’s something decent on television.

So, having filed down the rough edges of Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody constructs a generic colossus in his place. Freddie is presented as a force of nature, the kind of person who materialises once in a generation. Bohemian Rhapsody feels like a strange ego trip for this heavily fictionalised and generic iteration of the iconic rock star, to the point that Bohemian Rhapsody seems to genuinely and wholeheartedly argue that the single most important thing about Live Aid was not the lives of the children in Africa that it saved, but the way in which it allowed this great man some self-actualisation.

Enjoy this. This is about as much development as the other three members of Queen get over the course of the entire film.

In fact, Bohemian Rhapsody is so fixated by its fresh-out-of-the-box archetypal configuration of Freddie Mercury that nobody around him gets any room to breathe. The band Queen is deeply fascinating even outside of its most famous member, but Bohemian Rhapsody reduces the other three members of the group to a collection of broad archetypes: the one who gets to do the arguing with Freddie about the direction of the band, the boring one, and the one who is very horny in a PG-13 sort of way and who maybe wants to sleep with his car or something.

The irony of all of this is that Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t entirely fall to pieces. The bare bones framework of the music biopic over which the film has thrown a fresh coat of pain is a remarkably resilient model. There is a reason why these sorts of films were (and still are) so popular, why films like Ray and Walk the Line were so successful in their years of release. Of course, Bohemian Rhapsody is an inferior iteration of the same basic story, and cannot compete with Ray or Walk the Line in terms of quality, but even its complete lack of originality or insight demonstrates the appeal of this format.

Taking a (mic) stand.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a relentlessly cynical piece of work, but some of its beats still land in spite of all of this. It is undeniably cheesy and hokey when the music and rhythms of the title song reveal themselves to Freddie Mercury over the seven or so years leading up to its eventual recording, an example of how gravely movies like this misunderstand the creative process. Similarly, it is cheesy when the baseline of Another One Bites the Dust serves to defuse a potentially heated argument between various competing egos. Similarly, there’s the transparent manipulation of Freddie’s hanging question, “What if I don’t have time?”

However, there are smaller moments where the format does click. In particular, the short section of the film focused on the development of We Will Rock You works effectively, despite its absurd machinations. There is something almost revealing of the relationship between the band and its fans in the origin of that rock classic, tapping into the idea that Freddie so bluntly articulated in that awkward thematic luncheon. Brian May explaining his desire to give fans with a song that they could play themselves is a much more effective illustration of that idea than blunt exposition.

More than that, it is a testament to Queen that Bohemian Rhapsody is almost redeemed by its soundtrack. There are various debates about the artistic credibility and integrity of Queen as a rock band, to the point that perhaps the movie’s most brilliant moment comes from the decision to layer contemporary reviews of their work over a montage set to the title song. However, there is no denying that their music works. It resonates. It energises. It sounds like stadium rock, even playing on headphones. So it is no surprise that it works very effectively in a film like this. The soundtrack is a joy.

This should damn the film, and perhaps it does. After all, one can readily listen to the band’s greatest hits at any time without have to sit through a two-hour paint-by-numbers biography. At the same time, there’s something vaguely reassuring in the notion that even heard in this context the songs still resonate.

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