Culture

Film & Television

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’: Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?

By Luke Goodsell
This biopic of the outlandish Queen is strangely sanitised

Bohemian Rhapsody

Not too far into the slick new Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody – it isn’t a film of considered pauses, to say the least – the band find themselves embroiled in a dispute over which single to release from their 1975 album, A Night at the Opera. The group wants to go with their six-minute operatic epic, but the portly, Hawaiian shirt-clad label executive is adamant that it be “I’m in Love with My Car”. “That’s the kind of song teenagers can crank up the volume in the car and bang their heads to,” he says of the now relatively forgotten track. “‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ will never be that song.’”

The gag, and it’s one of the better ones, is that the label boss is played by a heavily made-up Mike Myers, whose 1992 movie Wayne’s World did indeed feature vehicular headbanging to said tune. That scene imprinted “Bohemian Rhapsody” forever on the psyche of a generation of suburban kids, and understood the outlandish melodrama and emotional release that made the song, and the band, continue to resonate across time and space. (“Bohemian Rhapsody” wasn’t aboard the Voyager Spacecraft, but it should have been.) The same can’t quite be said for the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, a crowd-pleasing but rather perfunctory, join-the-dots hagiography, where a hunger to entertain betrays a suspiciously anodyne exercise in brand management. For all its moments of electricity, it may as well have been generated by an algorithm set to “rock‘n’roll biopic”. You’re left wondering: was Queen really this uninteresting?

Executive produced by surviving band members Brian May and Roger Taylor, and directed, at least to a substantial extent, by Bryan Singer (the filmmaker was fired with three weeks left to shoot, and replaced by actor-director Dexter Fletcher), Bohemian Rhapsody plays like a well-oiled, two-hour montage designed to embalm the legend and move units on iTunes. It opens moments before Queen’s legendary 1985 Live Aid performance, and frontman Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek, complete with exaggerated teeth) issuing a single, dramatic cough – that all-purpose biopic convention to herald incoming bad news. To paraphrase the ever-useful music satire Walk Hard, “Freddie Mercury needs to think about his whole life before he plays,” and sure enough, the film dutifully flashes back to Queen’s first meeting, Mercury’s first love (Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton) and the group’s first flush of success, without skipping a beat in the playbook. (His Parsi heritage gets compressed into the checklist.) There’s Mercury, magically tinkling the opening chords to “Rhapsody” mere minutes after coining the band name (“I think it’s got potential!”); an opportunistic A&R guy sizing up the group’s genius at first glance (“You’ve got a gift!”); a dizzying American tour montage that feels like a Simpsons parody (“We love you, Cleveland!”).

Some of this is amusing, in a bad-TV-movie kind of way, and the cheesy screenwriting almost plays into Queen’s sense of camp populism – this is a band who supposedly wrote “We Will Rock You” to be performed with an audience at sports arenas, after all. “We’ll mix genres, we’ll cross boundaries, there’s no musical ghettos that can contain us,” exclaims Mercury in one scene, sounding less like an actual human than an anthropomorphised press release.

Conflating fact and fiction is practically a necessity in the music biopic, of course, and adherence to the “truth” is hardly a prerequisite for a great film. Take Floria Sigismondi’s excellent, underrated The Runaways (2010), which folded together several historical details but got right to the emotional essence of its characters, or F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (2015), where the parade of rock biopic clichés felt triumphant, even subversive, when applied to subjects once considered dangerous to the cultural status quo. And then there’s Todd Haynes’ mighty I’m Not There (2007), which treated the “real” details of Bob Dylan’s career as a jumping-off point for something altogether more abstract and mischievous, delivering arguably one of the finest music biopics in the process. Bohemian Rhapsody traffics in fictional shorthand and scrambled timelines to no such avail; it merely bowdlerises incidents for storytelling economy. It’s unusual to experience a film overseen by band members who were there and still have it feel divorced from any personal specificity; such is the urgency to race through Queen’s history, to saw off any unruly narrative limbs. That the film can feel like generic Hollywood product isn’t helped by a creative team – including Singer, flashy editor John Ottman, and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel – whose stock in trade is helming superhero tent-poles (their X-Mens have about as much historical fidelity).

The tinkering sparked concern, at least in corners of the internet prone to over-analysing trailers, that the film would somehow downplay both Mercury’s queer identity and the AIDS that eventually led to his death in 1991. (The issue has only been exacerbated by Malek’s muddled answer at a recent junket.) Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t exactly shy away from Mercury’s queerness, but the film’s treatment of this aspect of his life feels sanitised, like the rest of the story, for a PG-friendly box office. “You’re supposed to be a part of a rock band, not a member of the Village People,” May (Gwilym Lee) teases the newly Tom of Finland-moustachioed Mercury. It’s meant to be funny, but plays as spiteful, and hints at one of the film’s worrying undercurrents: May and Taylor as voices of reason, holding the band together in the face of Mercury’s “wayward” lifestyle.

The glibness is hard to overlook. When Mercury delivers his HIV diagnosis to his bandmates backstage at Live Aid, the group reacts with all the emotional vacancy of the cancer-stricken mum in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. It’s not the unintentional laugh you’d imagine the film wants, and it’s made worse by the fact that the scene is both wildly inaccurate (Mercury was diagnosed in 1987) and inserted to add ballast to the band’s Live Aid triumph. The AIDS crisis is otherwise relegated to some tastefully framed TV news footage, and one central-casting-cute young patient (this is a Bryan Singer movie) crossing paths with Mercury in an art-directed corridor.

The extent to which Mercury’s sexuality should be a focal point is an issue the film doesn’t resolve, and given the singer’s own reluctance to discuss his personal life at the (albeit very different) time, it’s surely impossible to know what he’d have wanted. We do know that Mercury, who could work a stadium like it was no one’s business, sought the embrace of the widest possible audience, especially the outcasts, like himself, way up in the cultural rafters. The film’s conflict of perspective, then – to whom does it owe what, and how much? – reinforces one of Queen’s ironies: they were four highly intelligent, virtuoso rock‘n’rollers led by a macho diva who, for all their pomp, bombast, and occasional musical peculiarity, played classic rock to football stadiums. With such a cultural purview, who’s to say that Bohemian Rhapsody – which aspires to little beyond simply entertaining its audience in the most generalist way – isn’t successful?

Even 27 years after his earthly departure, Mercury’s charisma can’t help but grace the film in some way, and the soundtrack of mostly original Queen songs – a mixture of album cuts, studio outtakes and live versions – still rattles the rock‘n’roll heavens. The film intermittently soars, despite itself: a protracted and elaborate digital recreation of the Live Aid set is an impressive send-off, with the simulated camera swooping in and across the 100,000-strong audience swarming inside Wembley Stadium. And Malek, his wide eyes lit by a perpetual glint of playfulness, performs a spirited mimesis of Mercury, though more successfully in his shy, private moments than when channelling the rocker’s combustible stage presence. Bohemian Rhapsody is a missed opportunity to rise to Mercury’s greatness, but in a time of packaged rock‘n’roll nostalgia, it just might be enough for some. We’ll always have Wayne’s World.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

Bohemian Rhapsody

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