Review: “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t just bad; it’s borderline appropriation

A fist is raised. Feet are stomped. A guitar riff rings out. And a legacy is cemented.

The final 20 minutes or so of the new Freddie Mercury biopic/Queen story – it isn’t quite clear – is essentially a mini Queen concert, specifically recreating the band’s 1985 Live Aid appearance. It’s the prime reason why at some point, someone has recommended you watch “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the biggest and loudest screen you can.

The suggestion has legs, though to somewhat of a fault. It’s an energetic and appropriately entertaining sequence driven to an obsessive pursuit to include every detail from the real-life event, exhibiting as much authenticity as is absent in the previous 100 minutes of the film. 

“Bohemian Rhapsody” – the movie, not the song; the distinction is immensely important for the purposes of this review – is a curiously empty creation. In its attempt to tell the story of the mythic Mercury, it hesitates to separate itself from the tropes of biopics past, despite the foundation for telling a unique, musically inclined tale being right there in history.

That is, instead of going for broke on the well-documented extremes and exceptional details of Mercury’s life, we instead get a ticking off of seemingly every rock movie cliché that ever was. The disapproving parents; the curiously instant synchronicity with his future bandmates; the rapid rise to fame—in this case, so rapid that we go from fledgling rock stars Brian May and Roger Taylor exchanging concerned looks at Freddie’s first gig with the band to revering and engaging his every will faster than you can read this sentence.

It’s an agonizingly frustrating decision, one we perhaps should have expected and one that hints at a more disturbing trend in Hollywood of remaining inauthentic for the sake of remaining so clearly in the mainstream.

Mercury, meanwhile, was anything but, building a legacy by exuding so much confidence that “Bohemian Rhapsody” fails to be inspired by. The film, despite the rock ballads that attempt to power it, is mostly two hours of dead noise.

To be sure, the bombastic concert set pieces are what most people will go see the movie for, and on most fronts they deliver. The eminently likeable Rami Malek successfully makes the leap to next level stardom by transforming into Mercury, and with every miniscule maneuver that makes us wonder whether this isn’t somehow Mercury reincarnated, it becomes more and more clear that Malek seems to be the only person involved who cares about living up to a legacy. His portrayal is a feat grandiose in its subtleties, and one that’ll almost certainly – and deservedly – earn him an Academy Award nomination.

The rest of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” however, has all the understanding and subtlety of a young child approaching an aging celebrity with no knowledge of their past accomplishments. From Freddie’s initial recruitment (of himself) to the band, to their meteoric rise, clashing with a record executive and exploring the intersection of Freddie’s sexuality with his public image, there’s surprisingly, and infuriatingly, more fiction portrayed onscreen than what occurred in reality, at least according to more than a few reports.

An erratic flow doesn’t make the film easy to absorb, either. Directors Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (more on them soon) combine their powers to born a feat the filmmaking equivalent of an out-of-tune waltz where feet keep getting stomped on. The only time the movie ever succeeds to engage is when some of rock’s most iconic anthems swoop in, and those awkward stomps are ostensibly going along with the beat.

Even then, when not at a concert, Queen’s music snakes in at the most inopportune of moments, reminders of why we bought a ticket seemingly sending up smoke signals for a better movie than they’re being used in.

At one point at the dawn of Bohemian Rhapsody’s inception – the song, that is – the sun rises behind a rooster who inexplicably screeches one of the anthem’s most iconic segments for a split-second, before the camera quick-cuts to the band hard at work in the studio.

It’s an unexpected, stylish trick, one that connects Queen’s glamorous aura to the world around them, and the film could have benefited from using many more like it.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” by no means had an easy path to the big screen. At one point that feels like much longer ago than it was, Sacha Baron Cohen was attached to the titular role; he eventually left when it became clear the story he wanted to tell was very different in scope and style than what Queen’s surviving members sought to portray.

The sentiment is clearly felt in the final product; a large swath of the film’s middle act takes place after the band separates following an argument—something that also never happened in real life.

At some point, the question must be asked: At what point do we reconcile the inevitability of telling the Freddie Mercury story with holding those telling the Freddie Mercury story accountable? Because by not fully devoting themselves to doing so, by diluting the legend to just another set of inaccurately conveyed clichés, some of the industry’s worst tendencies reveal themselves—to the point where the film’s few successes feel bought instead of earned.

An example: There’s never any real sense of urgency or drama when the Queen quartet bicker among themselves. At points, it seems like that’s what powered them to be so enduring. But virtually throughout the entire film, Freddie, Brian, Roger and John perspire confidence in knowing they control their own destinies, so much so that every knowing glance and raised eyebrow toward any faux roadblock to success leads us to ask: If the skyrocketing trajectory of the band was their own manifest destiny, what were any of them really seeking from it?

The question is never answered, even as its presence is hard to deny.

There’s also the involvement – and questionable involvement, at that – of the directors in question. A visionary known for his misses (“X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Superman Returns,” “Jack the Giant Slayer”) just as much as his hits (“The Usual Suspects,” “Valkyrie,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past”), Bryan Singer’s legacy has always had to contend with long-running claims of unprofessionalism and allegations of sex abuse.

Though it isn’t clear whether Singer was exceptionally frustrating to work with on the set of “Bohemian Rhapsody” or if it was a ripple effect of the #MeToo movement, he was unceremoniously dismissed from the production late last year.

Lesser-known director Fletcher was brought on-board to finish the film in Singer’s place, though most places, including IMDB, still list the latter as the sole director.

It’s near-impossible to distinguish how and to what extent those behind-the-scenes tales affected the final product – what artistic liberties Fletcher brought and which of Singer’s he decided to maintain custody of – but they’re impossible to ignore when a film about the most iconic glam rock band of all time and its larger-than-life frontman is creatively held up with little more than toothpicks and gum.

It’s also difficult to imagine that if a carbon copy of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was created with a fictional band at its center that the levels of enthusiasm for it would be remotely where they currently reside.

No one is pretending to go into this movie not knowing who Freddie Mercury is. Watching “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an act of reverence; experiencing in one medium the enormous impact Mercury made in another, like a one-time attendance of a worship service to confirm everything we’ve already known before.

But perhaps the more reverential act would be to refrain from making this movie at all, and reconcile the decision with the fact that Mercury’s platform transcends anything we could ever hope to replicate or experience at a theater.

 

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language

Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy

Directed by Bryan Singer/Dexter Fletcher

2018

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