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Bohemian Rhapsody

I’ll be honest, folks — I didn’t want to review this one. I didn’t want to talk about a movie that portrayed one of the most iconic gay artists in history while glossing over his sexuality and his untimely death of AIDS. I didn’t want to see a movie that was so clearly pulled in multiple directions as all the surviving members of Queen fought to have their say. And I sure as hell didn’t want to talk about director Bryan Singer getting fired midway through production for too many horrible reasons to list here. Oh, and let’s not forget that Sasha Baron Cohen was supposed to be the star of this movie all the way back in 2010 — that’s how long this movie has been stranded in development.

Everything about Bohemian Rhapsody smelled like a disaster, yet the critical reception has been decidedly mixed and the show is still a hot ticket over a month after wide release. As of this typing, it’s sitting at #5 in the box office returns, with a $539 million worldwide gross against a reported $52 million budget. When you think about how many high-profile movies have debuted in the past few weeks and are still in theaters now, that’s damned impressive.

For better or worse, this movie is not going anywhere. So let’s talk about it.

First of all, the reports were slightly exaggerated with regards to Mercury’s sexuality. It’s not that the movie doesn’t portray Freddy Mercury (here played by Rami Malek) as a homosexual, it’s that the portrayal doesn’t work. To start with, of course the audience knows that Mercury is gay, and he’s impossibly flamboyant from start to finish, which means that we’re left waiting for the characters to get with the program already. It’s hard enough for any biopic to surprise the audience — the last thing we need is to spend so much of the screen time waiting for the characters to figure out what we already know.

What could be even worse is in the romance arcs. Lucy Boynton appears in a recurring role as Mary Austin, Mercury’s lifelong friend and ex-fiancee. The chemistry between them is nil. At no point did I ever comprehend why Mary stayed friends with him after calling off their engagement, nor did I understand Mercury’s repeated insistence that he needed Mary to stay in his life. His romantic attachment to her made absolutely no sense on any level.

Mercury doesn’t have much in the way of male love interests, either. Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) is probably the closest we get, and he barely shows up until the film is pretty much over anyway. We’ve also got Allen Leech in the role of Paul Prenter, but the movie never even makes an effort at portraying Paul as anything but a vulture.

Mercifully, the AIDS angle is handled with greater effect. First we get a broad overview of the epidemic from a TV news spot in the background. Then we get a touching little throwaway moment when Mercury and an AIDS patient recognize each other. From there, the filmmakers keep the focus on Mercury’s commitment to spend every last second he has making music. He even gets a sweet little speech, coming out to his bandmates as HIV-positive and telling them all not to waste any time crying about it.

In fact, when Mercury is diagnosed, that’s when the movie truly crystallizes. So much of the first and second act were all about Farrokh Bulsara, the London kid ashamed of his Parsi heritage, changing his name and shaping his image into something that kept on spiraling out of control. Then the third act begins and Mercury finally realizes that he’s not going to live forever, so he picks up the pieces of his best possible self and sheds all the extraneous bullshit. It’s a novel and heartfelt take on the theme of identity, done in a way that could only be possible with this particular subject.

To be clear, we absolutely need more movies about the AIDS epidemic. After billions of dollars in research, widespread efforts at global awareness, more numerous and effective treatments, and a longer life expectancy for HIV-positive patients (in first-world countries, anyway), we still don’t have a cure or a vaccine for this disease that continues to threaten millions of people around the world today. If any filmmakers want to send the message that AIDS is still a problem in the modern day, they’re never going to do it with a period piece. And if any filmmakers want to show all the terrible mistakes made in the 1980s that led directly to the rise of the AIDS epidemic and millions of lives lost, they’re not going to do the job with a fucking Queen biopic.

This is a huge issue that demands and deserves nothing less than its own movie. Likewise, living as a homosexual and dealing with that stigma can only be done justice with two solid hours of runtime. Hell, if you want a recent movie about living as a gay man, I can happily recommend Love, Simon or Boy Erased. If the filmmakers wanted to make a biopic about Freddie Mercury that was centered around his sexuality or his life and death with AIDS, I’m sure they could’ve done that and it would’ve been fine. And it would’ve been a wasted opportunity, a reductive disservice to the man and his extraordinary legacy as the greatest lead singer in rock music history.

The movie is at its absolute best when it’s focused on the music. When the band is recording “Bohemian Rhapsody”, pushing each other further and harder with take after take in their efforts to create this bonkers six-minute opus unlike anything the radio has ever dared to play before, I was laughing my ass off. When Brian May (here played by Gwilym Lee) first composes “We Will Rock You”, it’s amazing. Even when the bandmates are screaming at each other over which tracks should be put in, it was hilarious and even moving.

Then we have the scene in which John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) comes to the band with “Another One Bites the Dust”. It triggers this massive argument, with the bandmates split about whether Queen can or should do a disco track. “It’s not Queen!” bellows Roger Taylor (played by Ben Hardy). And yet a huge part of what made Queen so successful was in how the band transcended genre. Like the Beatles before them, Queen had a remarkable talent for adapting with the times to stay relevant, using the latest trends as creative fuel to create more hits. But of course that’s only visible in hindsight — at the time, it’s fascinating to think about how terrifying and risky it must have been to change direction in pursuit of what could only be an embarrassing fad.

Last but not least, we have Queen’s performance at Live Aid. This has to be the greatest fifteen minutes of film I’ve seen all year.

From the mind-blowing opening shot (Seriously, how in the high holy fuck did they do that?!) to Queen’s slo-mo exit offstage, every last frame of this sequence is golden goddamn perfection. Every performance — down to the last background extra — is exquisite. The sound design is phenomenal. The visual effects are flawless. The music is of course fantastic. The camera movements are astonishing. Every cut is masterfully placed. The whole movie would’ve fallen apart if the filmmakers couldn’t sell Queen as immortal rock legends in this big climactic sequence, and sweet mother of mercy, did they ever sell it. From the epic scale to the intimate details, top to bottom, front to back, start to finish, this sequence absolutely crushes it on every conceivable level.

Such a damn shame we had to get through so much tedium to get there.

As often happens with biopics set over many decades, this movie has a nasty way of spreading itself too thin. A lot of important events tend to happen spontaneously, and many crucial events are omitted completely. To wit: The soundtrack includes “Under Pressure”, but we never actually see Queen in the studio with David Bowie. How’s that for a disappointment? Another personal favorite happens immediately after the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody”: In one scene, the filmmakers show onscreen text quoting negative reviews of the song; in literally the very next scene, Mercury is rocking “Bohemian Rhapsody” for a sold-out stadium. There’s never even the slightest effort at resolving the contradiction.

The filmmakers were trying to mold the life and times of Queen to fit the established biopic formula, which was clearly and obviously the wrong way to tell the story of a band that refused to fit any formula. Moreover, when a movie’s subject is so incredibly famous that the audience already knows everything that’s going to happen anyway, taking the most predictable turn at every route is probably the dumbest and most self-defeating strategy that anyone could possibly go with.

It certainly doesn’t help that the supporting cast is so lackluster. Aiden Gillen and Tom Hollander are just kinda there. Nobody in Mercury’s family makes any kind of impression. Mike Myers makes a brief appearance in a fat suit and a bad hairpiece to play a comical impression of a blowhard exec with no creativity or vision… look, if the filmmakers wanted Les Grossman that badly, they should’ve gone and hired Tom Cruise. Just saying.

Luckily, the band itself is much better. Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joseph Mazzello all do a fantastic job of playing their respective members of Queen. They all leave a distinct impression, with clear and unique personalities for each character, and their interplay is compelling to watch.

As for Rami Malek’s performance as Freddy Mercury, I’d put him in the same league as James Franco in The Disaster Artist. Both actors completely transformed themselves into unapologetically flamboyant goofballs who talk, look, and act like they’re living in parallel universes, both charismatic enough to lure others into sharing their vision, yet lonely for being so unique. The first difference is that Mercury actually has the talent to back it up, which feeds into his arrogance and leads directly into his downward spiral. This leads directly to the second difference: Mercury actually hits rock bottom and thus has to make amends in yet another scene cribbed straight from the Standard Biopic Formula.

Bohemian Rhapsody features wonderful lead performances, but a bland supporting cast. There are three or four legitimately great sequences (most especially that climax), separated by long stretches of predictable dross. The third act is solid, it’s just a damn shame we have to get through the first and second acts to get there. I’ve seen too many biopics suffer for trying to pack too much into too little, and it pains me to see that happen to a movie with a subject so multilayered and fascinating as Queen.

All the boring filler scenes make this a tough one to recommend for the big screen. But when it comes out on home video, be sure to pick it up ASAP.

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