Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?
DIRECTED BY BRYAN SINGER/2018
Once upon a time, there was a brave Queen, unlike any other. This Queen was actually four men, musical and merry. And, they rocked. For a time, they rocked the entire world.
When their most magical member was laid to rest, two of the remaining bandmates decided it was their sacred duty to ensure their legacy of special music would never be forgotten. They, the survivors, would reconvene. They would record anew. They would play the globe once more. And, they would shepherd a Queen movie. To paraphrase another movie, they would print their own legend.
Their movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, is now dropping, and dropping hard. With much anticipation from anyone who’s anyone that’s interested in supremely great rock n’ roll, the long, long awaited Queen bio-pic emerges from its own murky shadows, both playing to its crowd and condescending to them.
Bohemian Rhapsody is too safe, but also too loose with its own facts, weirdly didactic, and for a while, kinda boring.
Hyper focused on their late great frontman Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara, of Zanzibar), Bohemian Rhapsody manages to tackle its biggest challenge (“Who could ever play Freddie Mercury??”) while fumbling in its stadium’s end zone. Never mind that scores and scores of fans were stomping and chanting their tunes in massive unison. The biggest problem with this telling is that it’s nothing more than a rote musical bio-pic; hitting beats more familiar than the bass line of “Another One Bites the Dust”.
That Rami Malek’s thoroughly invigorating performance as Freddie Mercury is, at times, brilliantly indelible, only adds to the overall letdown. Malek comes as close to channeling Mercury as anyone every could; preening, prancing, strutting, and giving everything his all. This performance, as well as those of Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joseph Mazzello as band mates Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, deserve a far better movie than the one that was erected around them.
Even when the film gets around to its requisite muddying of Mercury’s character (as he has the gall to accept a solo deal), Bohemian Rhapsody is too safe, but also too loose with its own facts, weirdly didactic, and for a while, kinda boring. “Queen is a family”, states lead guitarist Brian May, more times than Vin Diesel does in any given Fast & Furious trailer. Were they a family? In reality, both Taylor and May released solo projects before Mercury ever did.
The rest of the band is practically relegated to comedy relief, ever gaggling together, ribbing one another when not wondering aloud about Freddie. So sidelined are they, that by the time Brian May concocts “We Will Rock You”, the occasion is so tossed off, so watered down, that it (by no fault of the performers) resonates as one of the film’s most embarrassing scenes. “I want to write a song that the audience can play”, May explains several times in just a couple of minutes. And just like that, one of the great immortal and unmovable objects of popular culture is clumsily checked off the filmmaker’s crowded list of things to acknowledge.
Bohemian Rhapsody’s use of songs is extensive, getting off to a promising start (up-fronting the moderately deeper cuts “Doing All Right” and “Keep Yourself Alive”) in terms of variety before quickly succumbing to a predictable hit parade. Only two songs that are newer than 1985 make the cut, and one is buried in the end credits. (Queen made formidable new music right up until Mercury’s death in late 1991).
Of the many remaining major Queen songs, some fare better, some actually worse. “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Another One Bites the Dust” get decent “spark of creation” showcases; “Killer Queen” is dumped into a rising success montage; “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, unceremoniously, is relegated to the background of a party scene. “Fat Bottomed Girls” is played live on stage, but in a sequence that takes place several years before the song was actually recorded. It’s great that so many of the songs are given breathing room to be properly featured- it softens the blow of much else.
If the titular tune can’t and isn’t unpacked as some might go in expecting it to be, that never stops the array of cooks in this kitchen from going broader, broader, broader with their tight, close-to-the-vest grip on the story of Mercury. Many times hailed as one of the greatest pieces of music of all time, let alone the field of rock, the 1975 opus “Bohemian Rhapsody” has emerged as Mercury’s signature song- and quite rightly so. It is an enigmatic, bold and mysterious six minute journey through the mind of its creator; a piece that his bandmates have explained to have existed in its entirety of said mental plane prior to actually writing it down or recording it. Shifting from dire pathos to absurdist opera to wild rock, the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” does it all. It is, in no small measure, a masterpiece for the ages.
In the film, immediately following the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody”’s album, A Night at the Opera– a major masterpiece in itself- a burst of actual review quotes, every one of them middling to negative, soar over off screen like the opening credits of Superman: The Movie. (Or Singer’s own overly reverent Superman Returns). The in-jokiness of the moment is incongruous to say the least, a snickering moment that’s never followed up on. Unless, perhaps, we choose to read those blurbs in the context not of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but of this movie.
Even so, it’s true that Bohemian Rhapsody understands a great many things about its subject matter. Then it goes ahead and spends most of its running time telling not showing these things. For the musical neophyte who wouldn’t mind having the majesty of Queen explained by a tremendously skilled cast of re-enacting actors of uncanny resemblance, Singer’s/Fletcher’s film is just the thing. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
None of which, unfortunately, can be said of the film of the same title, itself a well-intentioned if soggily-told mythicizing. To be sure, Bohemian Rhapsody the movie (as, going forward, we must see fit to differentiate), has a great many sets of fingerprints on it. There are the two shepherding band members, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor. There’s the replacement director, Dexter Fletcher, and the first director, Bryan Singer. And then there’s Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that fired Singer with sixteen shooting days remaining. Caught in a landslide, indeed.
Alas, even without the firing, it’s all too apparent that Bryan Singer was the wrong director for this project. There’s nothing in his considerable filmography to suggest that he harbors any true affinity for popular music. Why the director of The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns, and four X-Men movies of varying quality was chosen to bring this long gestating projects to the screen remains unknown. Factor in the filmmaker’s own already established pattern of erratic disappearances and no small bit of personal controversy, and the question only reverberates more deeply. One might conclude that nothing really matters to him.
Malek comes as close to channeling Mercury as anyone every could; preening, prancing, strutting, and giving everything his all.
When one considers the sheer uniqueness and versatility of the Queen oeuvre, the film’s tendency towards unenthusiastic paint-by-numbers storytelling is all the more disappointing. There’s nothing bohemian about this movie; nor is it anything resembling a rhapsody. Likewise, when one considers the various phases and diverse styles of Queen’s rise, rhapsodic shifts of all types could’ve been warranted, even welcome. The wrong title was chosen, as even the song itself fails to factor in all that prominently.
For so many of us, myself included, the discovery and subsequent immersion into Queen’s work was and continues to be revelatory. Amid the fantastic bombast and flair of nothing being done halfway, there is an affirmation to think outside of the lines. The lines of course are still there, though, and must be navigated with precision, skill, and attention to ever-shifting details. Things like melodrama, spirituality, intelligence, and complete lack of shame all pour through the speakers, the album art, the concerts, the videos. And of course, the musicianship, vocalizing, and raw pomposity are second to none. Where is any of this, I ask, in the fabric of Bohemian Rhapsody?
The film climaxes with an epic re-creation of Queen’s hallowed Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium in 1985. The vitality of this global performance, a cathartic reunion of sorts for the band members following Freddie’s ill-fated solo attempts, does come through in this spot-on finale. It lives up to what Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof has said of the real thing, “…it was the perfect stage for Freddie: the whole world.” The band’s ferociously fused set is presented nearly in its entirety, a triumphant ending so satisfyingly rendered, one momentarily forgets how obvious it is.
Impressive in fits and starts, strangely boring in other portions, Bohemian Rhapsody remains, nonetheless, a must-see for any Queen fan. The performance recreations alone are reason enough to indulge. But, is this the real life, or is this just fantasy? Though the timeline is questionable and certain omissions are glaring, it is, on a purely base level, a pleasure to look at. A legacy reinforcer to the end, I suppose if filmgoers exit the movie humming Queen tunes and hungry for the real thing, then, begrudgingly, it’s doing its job.
Yet, though it’s tremendous just to look at and take in the regular detailed re-creations of so many prominent sign posts in the history of Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, despite the best efforts of Malek and many other dedicated cast and crew members, cannot be expected to make a supersonic fan out of you.