- Movie Rating -

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

| November 30, 2018

My musical tastes came of age in the early 1980s, arguably a difficult time for rock and roll – long after the corporate structure had taken the life out of this branded anthem of the youth culture that flourished in the 50s, peaked in the 70s and by then by the 80s had been so corporatized that it had become a flavorless industry of cool.  In the new age of MTV, rock music become visualized but, tragically, lost its soul.  The MTV generation had a style that was colorful, sexual, and painfully generic – scarcely was there a mainstream band that didn’t look or sound like five others.  And yet, always standing above this arid maelstrom of sameness was a British rock band whose music was a thumb in the eye to the corporate mandate.

Queen was a tonic for the age.  Every song they played sounded like an epic – every song.  You always felt that behind every song lay a degree of passion, that someone wanted to write it.  It seemed as if every song was something experimental.  The structure of their music was always in flux, moving in unpredictable directions in odd combinations and configurations, guided musically by Brian May’s heavenly talent for guitar and vocally by the man who led the band to greatness.  Freddie Mercury was as close to performance artist as a rock star could get, a man to whom the music seemed to be in his very DNA.

When news came that a biopic was in the works, my heart sank.  Freddie Mercury and Queen are an act that no one can duplicate.  In terms of the recreation of their performances, I’m happy to say that Bohemian Rhapsody does not disappoint.  This is not a fantastic movie, it sticks largely to the musical biopic playbook like glue, but you have to admire its soul.  There’s a lot of heart in this movie even when the beats become a little erratic.

Early reviews have been quick to jump on the movie’s generic narrative, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t notice it too, but what really rescues the film is the performance by Rami Malek – he’s really the reason to see the movie (I smell an Oscar nomination).  His performance as Freddie Mercury is not uncanny – early on, his interpretation of the long-haired Freddie looks more like Mick Jagger – but what he captures is Freddie’s personal struggles with his sexuality, his vulnerability and a need to be surrounded by those he loves.  He’s a sweet, sensitive guy from a Parsi family who really didn’t understand his ambitions.  But those who dismissed him overlooked the dynamic performer that wriggled in his soul.  His talent is unmistakable, he’s a powerful singer with a four-octave vocal range, a born talent for power ballads and a creative mind that was always pushing his music to be new and different.  Like Mozart in Amadeus he’s portrayed as having an entire Opera House in his head and boundless creativity.

When the film wobbles, either by bad structuring or by mangled facts (Freddie was diagnosed with AIDS after Live Aid, not before), the movie can always rest on Malek’s performance.  We know that Freddie Mercury was outlandish and outspoken, a man for whom perversion and misbehavior were traits that he wore on his sleeve for all to see, and while Malek employs those traits he also infuses Freddie with a great deal of upfront vulnerability.  He’s a sensitive guy, but we always sense someone who wants – yes I’ll say it – somebody to love.  In a film of very few surprises, I was impressed with the way in which Malek allows Freddie quiet moments of introspection.  There are moments when he doesn’t say anything and we just see him contemplation, sometimes about the music, sometime about those he loves and often just about himself.

Those are the off-stage moments.  Onstage is where the movie’s problems seem to melt away.  Malek and his choreographer have obviously studied Freddie Mercury’s stage work with the skill and precision and have recreated it, not as an imitation but as an embodiment.  Freddie was a born performer, with music in soul.  He played to the audience and often with the audience.  Malek’s recreation of this in often uncanny.  I’ll just go ahead and say that the last 20 minutes of this movie, a spot-on recreation of Queen’s showstopping twenty-one-minute performance at Live Aid, is one of the most exhilarating things that I’ve seen in any movie all year.  I almost wish that the entire movie had centered around the build-up and execution of that performance.

Unfortunately, before that great moment, the movie struggles to follow the ups and downs of the band from their formation in 1970 until Live Aid in 1985.  There is so much story to tell about this band that it is not possible to fit it into 134 minutes.  The story of Queen really needed the miniseries treatment, maybe as a Netflix series.  There’s so much to Freddie and so much that the movie sadly leaves out, like his collaborations with David Bowie on “Under Pression” and with Michael Jackson on the beautiful “There Must Be More to Life Than This.”  Largely the movie sticks to the formation of their hit songs from the construction of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Are the Champions”, “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”

That’s part of the movie’s problem.  The narrative structure of the film stomps out red-letter moments in the band’s history without necessarily the feeling of the journey they are taking together.  The beats are all here like a checklist:

* Freddie joins the band in 1970 when it’s on its last leg – check.
* Queen becomes an overnight sensation – check.
* The band chooses a quiet farm away from the city life to create Bohemian Rhapsody – check.
* The song becomes a hit despite all objections – check.
* Success goes to Freddie’s head – check.
* He starts losing friends – check.
* Relations in the band are strained – check.
* He loses all his friends because he acts like a jerk – check.
* He has portents of his own doom – check.
* The doom brings Freddie a moment of clarity – check.

This is not a bunch of spoilers.  You can see this coming from a mile away.  In a movie dedicated to one of the most talented and unpredictable of musicians, it’s hard to believe that he would be the focus of a story that is so predictable.  But again, when the movie fails us on a story level, the performance by Rami Malek becomes the saving grace.  He makes the music and performance come alive and makes you long for a much longer and much more focused story.  Why does this movie feel so safe when it focuses on a man who didn’t seem to know the meaning of that word?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2018) View IMDB Filed in: Drama