Rami Malek in his Oscar-winning performance as Freddie Mercury in the bio-pic Bohemian Rhapsody. The film follows Mercury’s life, the creation of the legendary band Queen and the legacy Mercury would leave behind after his death.
I had heard various reactions before watching Bohemian Rhapsody. Most of what I had heard about it always started and ended with Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury. I didn’t really hear much about the film itself.
So, I thought Malek would be good as Mercury, but wasn’t sure what the rest of the film would be like. Would it be an engaging story of Queen, offer insight into the band members, their music, their rise in popularity, why they were so unique and special?
In the middle of watching the movie I realized why so many reactions to the film focused on Malek and little else. My feeling was that I was watching a flashy, lightweight, poorly told TV-movie with a tour de force performance in the center of it.
The story is flat and breezes along in a very superficial way. That’s what I mean by saying it feels like a ‘flashy TV movie’. The big joke about poorly made bio pics is they ‘tell you’ where you are in a persons life, rather than let you experience it. It starts to make me feel like I’m seeing ‘a shopping list movie’ that’s trying to hit all the major beats of a person’s life rather than watching a story unfold.
For instance, a character will relay the information “You’re on top of the charts! You have a years worth of sold out concerts! Why aren’t you happy? What more do you want?” Many a bio-pic falls make this cardinal sin and become ‘a shopping list’.
I can accept liberties to be taken in bio pics. I never watch them expecting them to be straight up documentaries and expect artistic liberties are going to be taken. While watching Bohemian I quickly suspected there was a lot of alterations happening.
After finishing the movie I looked up some of the inaccuracies the movie presents. I wouldn’t’ normally have a problem with them – if those changes help make the story and narrative more dramatic and creates satisfying arcs.
The strange thing about Bohemian is that even with the artistic liberties they take with Mercury’s life, the timeline of events, the people in his life, it all ends up playing more flat and routine than anything else. It becomes very dry and hokey movie.
For example, I understand the reasons why the film would shift the timing of Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis colliding at the same time with a band breakup. This allows to make the finale of the Live AID concert more of a redemptive moment for Mercury and becomes his triumphant ‘performance of a lifetime’ for him.
But then the film lays much of the conflict that occurs within the character of manager and Mercury confidant Paul Pretner. He becomes the story’s villain and is the one who corrupts Mercury into a homosexual lifestyle, he plants the idea of a solo career for Mercury, he gets Mercury to push the band away and it’s his doing that morphs Freddy into an isolated diva.
Much has been written of Pretner and his relationship with Mercury, and maybe he was a bad influence. However, I don’t think he’s the sole reason for all of Mercury’s behavior. That’s a very simple explanation for a lot, and quite frankly an easy out.
On top of the many dramatic story elements that are manufactured, the film doesn’t even present any compelling reasons as to why they’e there. I’m not sure why they bothered trying to create these conflicts if they were going to explain them all away with dull, convenient excuses of Pretner being the devil in Mercury’s ear. It ends up being very shallow and excuses any flaws Mercury might have truly had.
AND the filmmakers are the ones who created these’tension-filled’ scenarios and they don’t even pay them off in any satisfying way throughout this story.
I mean, if your going to concoct fictionalized scenarios in order to make dramatic scenes, then make them be worthwhile. Do something interesting with them, have them be used as a window into this individual so we will learn something about them. And have some satisfying payoffs to them. Instead they all seem there to help strengthen the image of Mercury being a saintly victim who was corrupted.
Mercury’s sexuality is an aspect that is presented in the safest, most inoffensive way possible. Which is strange since it was a such a huge part of his life, his persona, his art. From the movies perspective it’s almost like Freddie was lured into homosexuality, not something he pursued. Something he resisted, but ultimately succumbed to leading him down a dark road.
Even the moment when Prenter outs Freddy on television doesn’t have any impact because the film doesn’t set up Freddie’s closeted lifestyle very well and how important it was to keep it secret from the public. Again, it’s ‘a shopping list’ movie. This happened, so let’s just show it.
Freddie’s relationship with his family is so glossed over and leaves zero impact in the film. It’s another portion of Freddie’s life that presents a tense relationship he’s in at the start – complimented by very clichéd scened – but then is quickly and conveniently smoothed out by the end to give the film a ‘happy ending’. For what his family aspect adds to the movie it could have been dropped and no one would have ever missed it.
In the end, most of the film falls into a very blasé, by the numbers bio pic that’s only livened up by concert montages and Malek going full Freddie.
It’s a shame too, since along with Malek the rest of the cast are all good. The Queen members all look their part, but are given little to do other than to play in some entertaining and well done concert scenes. Jim Hutton is quite effective as the manipulate Pentar and Lucy Boynton is a sweet anchor in Freddie’s life as Mary his wife and lifetime companion.
There are some very nice little moments, like between Freddie and Mary, who was Mercury’s love of his life. There are some sweet scenes of him wanting her in his life even if she will no longer be his wife. There’s a memorable moment of him talking to her on the phone looking out the window to her apartment across the way and wanting her to turn on and off her lamp as he does his keeping a connection alive between the two. That simple little scene is one that stood out to me as much as the showy musical performances.
In fact, I think I would have preferred to have seen more of a focus on their relationship than Mercury with Queen.
Malek is indeed excellent in this. At times I forgot I wasn’t watching Freddie Mercury performing. The extended Live Aid concert at the end of the film is probably the reason why Malek won the Oscar. When he’s on stage performing as the dynamic Mercury and belting out the songs he’s fantastic. I was completely engaged. When he’s offstage, that’s where the movie grinds to a hokey crawl.
I’m not entirely familiar with the behind-the-scenes drama that occurred with the film. The firing of director Bryan Singer, Dexter Fletcher finishing the film, Sacha Baron Cohen being originally cast, the demands of the Queen members as to what the film would be. It sounds like the film went through a lot of hands and demands to get made. Maybe that was the problem and how the story became so watered down and forgettable.
I know the film was a big hit and almost everyone seems to really like it, so I guess I’m in the minority here. Bohemian really felt like a huge missed opportunity. Compared to some other musician bio movies, it falls very short of providing any depth, insight and showing the influence a great artist had. It gives the big beats of Mercury’s life, but it’s just all presented as bullet points in Bohemian Rhapsody.
What’s Love Got To Do With It, Love and Mercy, The Coalminers Daughter, Born To Be Blue, Walk The Line, were much better films about musicians. I walked away from those movies feeling like I got some fresh understanding to those performers.
In fact, soon after watching Bohemian I was channel surfing and came across Steven Soderbergh’s 2013 Liberace film Behind the Candelabra – the bio-pic about Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. There’s another film about a flamboyant popular musician with a secret sex life and who eventually died of AIDS as well. While rewatching it again, I was reminded how compelling and fascinating a film about a musical artist can be and just how unspectacular and uninspired Bohemian told its story in comparison.
If you like the film fine, but I’ll leave it with this, say we were to take this Bohemian script and just present it as a stage reading. We take out all the music, the concert sequences, Malek’s performance and read it along as the script was written – it would be a very dull, unengaging haul.
Luckily, the film had Malek who gives an amazing performance as Mercury and is able to generate excitement and awe. He, along with Queen’s music, truly carries this film and brings Mercury back to life. It’s too bad the rest of the film didn’t live up to his performance.