Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Dir. Bryan Singer and also unofficially Dexter Fletcher. Staring Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy

Peter Sellers believed that he would have won an Oscar for Being There if only Hal Ashby hadn’t put outtakes in the credits. It broke the spell, according to Sellers. “Chauncey Gardiner” was on such a different planet that to remind us that it was Sellers before we left the theater—and Sellers really is so good in Being There that you can forget it’s him—cheapened the effect. At the end of Bohemian Rhapsody we see the opposite problem. After a movie of trying to desperately convince us that Rami Malek is Freddie Mercury, culminating with a painfully recreated Live Aid set, the movie gives us the music video for “Don’t Stop Me Now.” (I confess that I had to stop the movie at one point and watch something from Rock Montreal to clear my palate, so this was my second Queen performance in about an hour.) It is shocking how enormous the difference is between Freddie Mercury and a guy dressed up like him for Halloween. The real Mercury’s presence is huge. You cannot take your eyes off the guy because it seems like he’s the most confident person in the world, and that’s right, because he has the best voice of anyone in rock and there ought to be a hell of a lot of confidence that follows from it. He is utterly comfortable up there, doing whatever he wants to do, and his comfort demands our attention. At Live Aid, Freddie does this strut after the first verse of “Radio Ga Ga.” He has one hundred thousand people clapping when he claps, pointing when he points. And then there’s that strut, lasting one or two seconds, as he goes from one side of the stage to the other, the strut of someone who knows that at that moment he is better than drugs or religion or sex or triumph. It’s not replicable, which Bohemian Rhapsody proves, but I don’t think it would have ever been replicable, no matter who they got to play the part or who they got to direct it. No actor ever made can exude the confidence of being magnetic North while magnetic South waits to see what you’ll do next.

Bohemian Rhapsody knows it’s fraudulent, and so it works hard to copy as much as it can from the real-life Queen in the hopes that we either won’t notice or won’t care. Thus the Halloween costumes, which don’t stop at those infamous fake teeth that Malek is wearing, but the parade of wigs they find for Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello (Brian and Roger and John) and, of course, for Lucy Boynton (playing Mary Austin, the love of Mercury’s early professional life). The costumes are all period recognition stuff, nothing special. Freddie’s parents live in a world that’s filled with that particular mustard yellow color that says late ’60s, early ’70s domesticity. Most of all, and most hilariously of all, the movie does not let Rami Malek sing. Read whatever PR you’d like to read about how Malek’s voice is layered into whatever dubbing they did for him in the movie, but if there are parts of the movie where you can pick out what is genuinely Malek as opposed to Mercury or this Marc Martel character, you’re Mozart. It’s not that a music biopic can’t survive without the famous voice of the person being discussed. Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t really sound like Johnny Cash, and Renee Zellweger doesn’t sound like late-stage Judy Garland, but those are performances which have been generally lauded by critics and audiences alike. Bohemian Rhapsody is soil-your-pants terrified of putting Malek’s voice up against Mercury’s, as it were, and so there are stretches of the movie—easily the most enjoyable stretches of the movie!—which are the equivalent of popping open your preferred music app and listening to “Another One Bites the Dust” or “Keep Yourself Alive” or what have you. It was rough there for a while, but I ultimately decided that I hated Bohemian Rhapsody, not Queen, and not any of their songs. I could have avoided a Friday night existential crisis if I’d just sat there with a Spotify playlist and read Freddie Mercury’s Wikipedia page. It wasn’t long before there were singalong versions of this movie in theaters, and on one level I get it. If Queen can be summarized with a vibe, it’s the feeling that’s arena rock at its best, that you can be part of an ocean of voices singing that same song no matter how good or bad your singing is. But on another, it’s just more proof that the movie’s musical performances are pointless as elements of a movie; no one at a karaoke bar is asking you pay attention to Alanis Morrissette.

What’s left is purely generic rock biopic stuff, a genre which is so exhausted that I don’t even know if it’s possible to make a good movie from it any longer. No type of movie has a greater demand from its audience that it be shown exactly what they expect to see: not even Marvel or Star Wars movies compare to the utter tyranny of the formula of the music biopic. Would it be possible not to discuss “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “We Will Rock You” in this movie? Would it have made the movie more interesting to exclude those? I have no idea, but no one would ever try to do it, either, because every word-of-mouth review would lead with “They don’t even do (insert giant hit) here!” It means that we have to hit certain key phases of Freddie Mercury’s life. Sex and drugs and fame lead him away from the people who care about him most and the music he gives himself over to, and then he like, figures it out thanks to the good woman in his life, and then there’s a triumphant performance against some odds, and I dunno, isn’t there a special place in Hell for someone who can make Freddie Mercury so incredibly dull? (That person may be screenwriter Anthony McCarten, whose entire brand is “mediocre, instantly forgettable biopic,” or it may be editor John Ottman, who certainly cuts a great deal, but deserves the ignominy of being the most baffling Oscar winner in a movie that won four truly baffling Oscars.) Better to never hear “Save Me” or “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” than to sit through this interminable scene in the middle of the movie where the band brings A Night at the Opera to EMI’s Ray Foster (Mike Myers), who doesn’t want to release “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single. Before, they had sold it to him as the most ambitious crossover event in history. In this scene, they have to fight for “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single. In seconds flat, the movie goes from explaining and pointing out all the little flourishes of the song to a line where Brian May says, with a straight face that is somehow not straight enough, “It ruins the mystery if everything’s explained.” There’s a part of that scene where Foster says that no one will ever hear of Queen if they insist on making such bad choices. Because I guess we should all double down on our terrible choices, the movie cuts back to him looking perturbed in his office while Queen “blows the roof” off of Wembley, as it were. That sure showed him!

The movie is largely obnoxious, but it devolves into pernicious once we get to Freddie Mercury’s bisexuality. As much as the movie talks up how it isn’t a choice—there’s that line where Mary says that his sleeping around so much hurts because his sexual preference isn’t a choice—it certainly does a whole “path less traveled by” bit once Freddie starts making his sexual relationships with men his priority. It’s the way he sleeps with guys at truck stops that puts a wedge between himself and Mary; the fact that he’s not settling down also puts him in opposition to the rest of the band, who find wives offscreen and all at once. The movie’s villain is Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), a gay man who comes on to Freddie and then comes to control him more and more, like a mustachioed Mrs. Danvers. It’s impossible to know why Paul is so possessive of Freddie. McCarten is not all that interested in stuff like “motivation” or “people,” and so the way this comes off in practice is that Paul is manipulating Freddie because he’s gay, which is his only personality trait that we’re allowed to see. Does he care about the money? The attention? Being near someone famous? Or is he just a villainous gay guy who made Freddie gay and stole him away from Mary, who was the love of his life, and from Queen, who were his family. (They were his family because they describe themselves as family multiple times.) It’s as tasteless and tone-deaf as setting a trip to a bathhouse in the early ’80s to “Another One Bites the Dust.” Right. Yes, they do that too.

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