The Good, The Bad and the Freddie.
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
— Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
We may well apply the first lines of Queen’s magnum opus Bohemian Rhapsody to the movie encomium of the same name. There is some biography in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (“the real life”), yet much dramatic license (“just fantasy”), with particular focus on flamboyant frontman Freddie (“Caught in a landslide / No escape from reality”), who is given an Imaginary Movie Arc for the sake of biopic formula. Which is ironic, considering RHAPSODY is portraying a band renowned for defying formula.
The four members of what would become the rock band Queen find each other in London, do pub gigs, sell their van to make records by dangling speakers and banging pots, go on world tours, break up due to gayness, reunite, and play Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. And then Freddie dies of AIDS. The more I think about how wrong BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY gets the story of Queen, the more I wonder exactly who it was made for.
Writers Anthony McCarten (DARKEST HOUR) and Peter Morgan (FROST/NIXON), with directors Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (after Singer was fired), and founding Queen members/executive producers Brian May and Roger Taylor, deliver a Stone Cold Crazy Hammer To Fall; a Headlong tribute to one of the world’s greatest bands. What they present is obviously done with a wealth of love and respect. And we Queen fans thank them for the Sheer Heart Attack.
Yet these same filmmakers seem distracted in getting ANY details right about Queen in general, pertaining to events, songs, eras, labels, fictional characters, release dates, and chronology. For example: Queen does their First U.S. Tour in 1974, and they’re playing Fat-Bottomed Girls – a song from their 1978 album, Jazz… It’s not just one detail here or there – it’s compound mistake upon compound mistake that leaves the story a Crash Dive on Mingo City.
RHAPSODY never takes the time to delve into the cornerstone of the band’s existence – its music! Yes, we hear Queen songs all over the place (Keep Yourself Alive, Seven Seas of Rhye, Now I’m Here, Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon, Under Pressure), but we are rarely made privy to Queen’s studio innovation, their unique vocal layering, Brian’s inimitable guitar dynamism and the band’s compositional savvy (except for silly montages of Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You, and the aforementioned banging of pots). For example, wouldn’t it have been cool to reveal how Queen achieved their trademark harmonies (Freddie, Brian and Roger would all sing one harmony part together on one track, then do each harmony in the same way, double- and triple-tracking until full fandango), or how Brian used the myriad pickup settings on his vaunted home-made guitar, the Red Special, to sound like an organ (the Shepard-Risset glissandos in Tie Your Mother Down) or a whole woodwind section (Good Company), or the multi-talents of Roger who produced and performed his 1981 solo album himself like a Todd or a Prince, or how John Deacon contributed to the Queen sound by combining his own home-made invention, the Deacy Amp, to Brian’s Red Special, bringing forth orchestras and thunder. But this movie is not about Brian, Roger, Deacy, or even Queen – it’s about Freddie. And even then, the Imaginary Movie Arc insults him more than it honors him…
A record exec chides the band in going against record industry formula, in wanting to release the six-minute Bohemian Rhapsody: “Formulas work. We like formulas.” It’s a statement meant to convey how out of touch he is with the cool kids. Then RHAPSODY, seemingly without realizing it, falls right into its own self-aware sarcasm, following every formulaic BEHIND THE MUSIC beat we’ve grown accustomed to in music docs. It’s WALK HARD with classier songs.
In the final telling, the only viewers In The Lap Of The Gods will be non-Queen fans, who will get a slick confused taste of misplaced majesty, while the truest fans remain The Loser In The End.
Gwilym Lee is Brian May – exactly. (I mean, Brian IS a scientist. Did he CLONE this guy from himself?) Joseph Mazzello is John Deacon – also exact; who woulda thought the loudmouth kid from JURASSIC PARK would grow up to look exactly like the quiet Deacy? Ben Hardy is Roger Taylor – can drum, can’t act. And Rami Malek (MR. ROBOT) is Freddie Mercury. Malek’s “presence” as Freddie is an astounding work of art, a Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, easily the best aspect of the film (besides Brian May’s clone). With every hard closeup, we see a myriad of emotions flit across his face: the dissatisfaction of his buck teeth, the confidence as a vocalist, the indecision as a heterosexual. He’s done his homework with the moves and mannerisms, he tops the bill, he overkills… but was it that hard to insert brown contact lenses over his green Egyptian cat’s eyes?…
Roger is an aspiring dentist, Brian an astrophysicist, Deacon an electrical engineer, with emphasis on Freddie’s life:
Born Farrokh Bulsara, raised as an Indian Parsi (“Persian” of the Zoroastrian faith), we see clashes with Freddie’s father, who feels like he’s losing his son, especially when he changes his name to Mercury (“The family name isn’t good enough for you now?”); we see the racism toward Freddie (“You Paki!”); we follow his dreams, meet his girlfriend, his gay parties and his supposed loneliness and redemption. Cruel as it is to be this cynical, we are only following Freddie’s arc because: a) the rose-colored glow of absence, b) lead singer, c) dead, so his story has a crisp denouement, and d) he was faaaabulouuuus! Let’s face it, if Freddie were still alive, all the same loonies who laud him as the greatest rock star in history would be complaining about his voice, his gayness, his solo albums, his boyfriends, his red carpet appearances, his cats, his mustache, you name it. Fuck social media.
Lucy Boynton is Mary Austin, the true love of Freddie’s life, for which he would compose Love Of My Life (apparently in one take in its completed form, if this movie’s portrayal is to be believed [eye-roll]). Movie does not make it apparent, but they were together for 7 years before they parted as a couple, with Mary always in touch with, or working with, Freddie; he granting her the majority of his estate after his death (not shown here). Mary tearfully tells Freddie, “You’re gay!” He counters with, “I’m bisexual–” She interrupts: “You’re GAY, Freddie!” These words NEVER came out of Mary’s mouth. Because the very fact Freddie was with her, by definition, makes him demonstrably bisexual. Why are people so enamored with the GAY label? Freddie had no reason to embellish the truth after he was out – yet people would continue to tag him gay. In the end, I guess he just gave up and moved in with Jim Hutton.
Tom Hollander in a brilliant calming role as Jim Beach, Queen’s lawyer – handling all of Freddie’s mercurial asides with equanimity (ha! Did you see what I did there?); Aiden Gillen is Queen’s fast-talking manager; Allen Leech is Paul Prenter, Freddie’s personal assistant, who makes sexual advances on Freddie, which Freddie turns down, until… well, until he doesn’t. Prenter, who sported Freddie’s 1980’s mustachioed look before Freddie did, is the “big gay influence” on Freddie (which is unfair to him, of course, because it took two to mustache-ride), and Queen would go on to blame Prenter for their scattershot 1982 disco album Hot Space. Roger: “Prenter very much wanted our music to sound like you had just walked into a gay club.” It was a foray into a genre where Queen became imitators not innovators, and it unfortunately slotted neatly into the “blame the gay” category. (And note that when Freddie fires Prenter, it’s in the pouring rain, to signify the nadir of his journey. Metaphor much?)
Mike Myers in heavy disguise is a fictional composite of a record exec, seemingly only here for the gag, “Kids won’t bang their heads to Bohemian Rhapsody” – a callback to WAYNE’S WORLD (which Myers wrote and starred in). The filmmakers might have instead portrayed the real villainous managers that inspired the Queen tongue-lashings Flick Of The Wrist or Death On Two Legs; instead we get a schwing inside joke. Roy Thomas Baker, Queen’s producer on five seminal albums, is never mentioned.
And Adam Lambert (Queen’s young vocalist prodigy) cameos as a trucker, that gives Freddie the eye before sauntering into a roadside bathroom!
A young Brian says “We’ll mix genres and cross boundaries!” I HATE these retrospective statements in biopics! Those words NEVER came out of Brian’s mouth!
Thankfully, RHAPSODY is built from the ground up on Queen’s inimitable music. The mimed performances are almost flawless, the synch practically seamless. At one point, Rami plays the Bohemian Rhapsody Bb motif upside down on the piano – the correct notes! Later, at Wembley Stadium, he’s just hitting the G-minor over and over again and hoping we won’t notice… Apparently, Rami’s vocal performance is a combination of himself, Freddie’s actual voice, and Marc Martel (from The Queen Extravaganza, renowned for his vocal Freddie-ness, and the man most Queen loonies want to see in place of Adam Lambert). Another commendable aspect of the vocal performance is choosing to go with many of Freddie’s “live” melody lines, in lower harmonies (which were less spectacular than his recorded works), because onstage, he couldn’t reach the range of his studio voice. Also commendable to hear different mixes for the band in different locations – from recording studios to lounge rooms, to live onstage.
Movie opens with the distinctive sound of The Red Special – Brian May’s unmistakable harmonic signature, playing the 20th Century Fox theme! Awe-inspiring curtain-raiser! We see Brian’s Vox amps, Deacy’s Fender Precisions; we see Brian and Roger onstage with Smile, performing Doing All Right, which would end up on Queen’s 1973 debut album (with Tim Staffel, their original lead singer, providing new vocal tracks just for this movie).
In the studio recording Bohemian Rhapsody, Roger ululates into a mic, “Galileo, Galileo!” while Freddie castigates him: “Higher,” to which Roger sings exactly the same note. It’s the correct note, yet Freddie entreats again, “Higher”… but Roger goes no higher, just sings the same correct note again in exactly the same way. Uh, are the moviemakers trying to convey Freddie’s perfectionism? Well, how many times are you going to make Roger sing the same note with Freddie repeating “Higher”? Freddie should be suggesting, “More resonant / different inflection / more cutting / it’s a bit flat” – or SOMETHING other than the pedestrian idiocy of “higher.”
From the moment Freddie meets Brian and Roger in Smile (– nope, he knew them already), to the moment Queen pass U2 supposedly coming offstage before them at Wembley (– nope, Dire Straits played before Queen), RHAPSODY is rife with unforced errors – because Hollywood is a Great King Rat.
There is an irrelevant origin scene for Freddie’s characteristic half-mic-stand: During a show, he struggles with an uncooperative mic-stand and wrenches out the top half, and I guess we’re all supposed to slap our thighs and go, “Man, this movie is just like SOLO, in that I never even asked for the origin of this nothing piece of hardware!” Why not an origin on why he wore his cock-ring on his bicep during Live Aid?
Freddie Mercury once said: “I have visions of actually having a film made of my life story one day, which I would have a key part in… My dears, the things I’ve done in my lifetime … it’ll be totally triple X-rated!” Sacha Baron Cohen (originally slated to play Freddie) wanted to make just such a movie, but it clashed with Brian’s and Roger’s vision, and thus we get Freddie’s PG-13 parties here, with gays and trannies and gimps (oh my!).
Freddie’s arc is: attaining success, slipping into sex drugs and rock and roll (to be more precise: homo sex, implied drugs, and solo career) before redemption at Live Aid. But each low point here garners its own demerits:
HOMO SEX: In biopics, the antagonist usually whores himself out to pussy; here, Freddie’s bisexuality gives viewers added shock value as we see a montage of red-lit gay clubs and fully-clothed PG-13 parties meant to represent Freddie’s triple X-rated conCOCKtions. The irritating thing is: the gay lifestyle is represented as Freddie’s “fall,” and the band is shown derisive of Freddie’s descent into gayness, with Mary (the hetero element) absent from this era – until she tries to pull him from the abyss with news of her pregnancy (again, a “straight” condition). It is also implied Freddie threw these parties out of loneliness. But who are the filmmakers to say Freddie needed to fill some void within him? Movie is trying to find some deep-rooted psychosis on why a young, rich, virile rock star would throw triple-X parties. [Pause for effect…] ‘Nuff said.
The final straw to the “party” psychosis is when Freddie meets his future lover after a night’s festivities, Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who tells him, “I like you, Freddie. Come find me when you like yourself.” Those words NEVER came out of Jim’s mouth.
IMPLIED DRUGS: Guys can kiss guys onscreen nowadays (we are soooo liberated, my dears!), but we must’nt see Freddie snorting cocaine – typical Gutless MPAA. Freddie is never shown out of his head, just near some lines on a table, and in truth, his lifestyle NEVER got in the way of his music business. Yet this aspect is thrown in with the rest of the clichéd pitfalls of rock excess.
SOLO CAREER: Movie tells us that Freddie’s decision to go solo (which is portrayed as a tortured Freddie taking others’ advice) breaks up Queen. And that’s a big bowl of Chinese Torture. Because Queen never broke up. Freddie only released his first solo album, Mr. Bad Guy, three months before the July 1985 Live Aid gig. Roger, meanwhile, had released two solo albums before that date (Fun In Space and Strange Frontier), with Brian releasing a 1983 Star Fleet Project solo EP that featured Eddie Van Halen! That’s newsworthy, no? I guess not, when you can fill your movie with all that gay shit. At the band’s “reunion” meeting before Live Aid, Roger says, “We haven’t played together in years!” – when in fact, Queen in real life had just come off touring The Works album.
The movie holds up Live Aid as the pinnacle of Queen’s career. Considering Bob Geldof’s and Midge Ure’s worldwide charity dambuster scored Queen unanimous acclaim as “the greatest live performance in the history of rock,” that may be arguably correct, however, when the movie adds extra motivation behind the gig, such as Freddie telling his bandmates of his AIDS diagnosis (in real life, he was not diagnosed until 1987), and when Freddie goes around on gig day finding his settle-down boyfriend, reconciling with his parents, and then singing the line onstage with gravity in his gaze, “Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth…” it colors the performance in layers that were not really existent, and it insults the man Mercury.
So Freddie’s To-Do List on July 13, 1985:
1) Find Jim Hutton (after scouring the phonebook).
2) Have tea with parents and Jim (“He’s my… friend.”)
3) Reconcile with dad (“Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”)
4) Play Wembley Stadium.
You know what you do on the day you play Wembley Stadium? NOTHING ELSE, let alone re-align your life from that of raging rock star to boring aunty.
I wouldn’t be so Killer Queen on the production if they weren’t so hubristic about everything they supposedly got right. Freddie’s personal assistant, Peter Freestone, was an advisor on set, and praises the production for “going into such great detail” like recreating the contents of Freddie’s man-purse authentically! That’s nice, Peter, for a prop which is never opened onscreen. Now how about getting the BIG details right, like: Why is Brian teaching Freddie 1977’s We Will Rock You while Freddie sports a mustache and cropped hair, a look he would not adopt until 1980? This is not ancient history – the song’s actual video shows Freddie with no mustache and shoulder-length hair! (And those precious star-shaped glasses!)
The finale of RHAPSODY showcases the band at Live Aid, another commendable tour de force of mimicry from all involved, from the set dressers to the choreographers to the cinematographers and band actors. In essence though, it’s an exercise in redundancy. We don’t need to “see” this almost 20-minute performance to know it was a Day-Oh heard round the world; yes, the movie is capped nicely with this gig recreation, but all its onscreen time could have been used to fill in more judicious Prime Jive.
We don’t really see any progression of Queen albums (the first 11 albums are all tossed up in the air and songs land wherever they’d make good dramatic landfall), however RHAPSODY totally neglects the 3 albums made after Live Aid (A Kind Of Magic, The Miracle, Innuendo), opting to cut to final title cards, detailing Freddie’s final days. Hmm, cutting a man’s short life even shorter… Closing titles are accompanied by the Queen video for Don’t Stop Me Now (from Jazz), so we end on an optimistic note, band youthful, song energetic, sentiment momentum…
In the end, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY may just be a metaphor for Queen itself, who loved to subvert expectations, especially with Freddie’s irreverent sense of humor, as we shuffle awed to the altar, to see regal, virtuoso and educated – and then it comes out in a full jester bodysuit with a cock-ring around its bicep.