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Alan Charlton

Plenty of wrong notes in Bohemian Rhapsody 

Voices Nov. 8, 2018

Gwilym Lee and Rami Malek star in a scene from Bohemian Rhapsody, a film that is a sanitized and unfaithful representation of the life of Queen lead singer Freddy Mercury.  (CNS photo/Fox)

The release of many films is anticipated eagerly, and certainly this was true of Bohemian Rhapsody. Fans of all ages have been anxious to relive their musical experience through this account of the extraordinarily popular musical group Queen. Sadly, the result fails to satisfy.

Of course, the film makers were faced with a choice. They could have aimed at making a bio-pic of lead singer Freddy Mercury, which might have had a real, even salacious, appeal for many. After all, he lived a life that at the time and even to a large extent today was hardly within societal norms. Flamboyant, even by the standards of rock stars, and self-admittedly bisexual, he died of AIDS.

On the other hand, the film could have attempted to help viewers understand more fully the musical achievement of the group.

If one takes a cynical view of the undertaking, one might conclude Bohemian Rhapsody tries to be a bio-pic, but rated to make it accessible to younger viewers (who are as enthusiastic about Queen as anyone). And that is what seems to have been done. The film is a sanitized and unfaithful representation of Freddy Mercury’s life in that it skims over the sexual content, doing so in such a way as to earn the film a PG rating.

Admirable as this may be, the result is a film which ultimately fails to present a satisfactory account of Freddy Mercury’s life, failing to deal with any of the issues it raises. In fact, Bohemian Rhapsody becomes merely a sketchy and misleading biography of a man who had enormous talent.

The narrative is highlighted by a series of episodes which strive to recreate Queen performances. One can easily forgive a biopic for failing to have the status of documentary – after all, some manipulation of fact is necessary in such endeavours in the interest of dramatic effectiveness.

However, the reality is that a film about Queen should be concerned with the music, for that is the only reason we remember them. Whether Freddy Mercury’s sexual orientation was a major influence on that music is, of course, debatable, especially, as is made clear in the film, since the music was ultimately a collaboration by the group, of which the other three members were heterosexual.

In short, a film about the group’s musical achievement and Freddy Mercury’s contribution to it musically might have been more satisfactory than a botched-up biography. After all, does the fact that Tchaikowsky was homosexual really have great relevance to an appreciation of his music?

If one is looking for a film about the music, then Bohemian Rhapsody does little to help the audience better appreciate it. In fact, it generally goes to great pains to recreate the music using actors as stand-ins. This being the case, one would do well simply to download from the Internet examples of readily accessible archival footage of the band.

It is true that the film does indicate, often inaccurately, some of the controversy surrounding the group’s career choices, and these developments are interesting in the light of the way the band evolved in its journey. But the film only truly comes alive in the recreation of the performances.

This is especially true in the superb and justly famous 1985 Live Aid appearance, which frames the film. While this has been brilliantly recreated for the climax of the film, one wonders how necessary it is. After all, as has been indicated, one can easily download footage of the original performance, making the recreation redundant.

The film was not aided in that the original director, Bryan Singer, was thrown out of the project a few weeks before completion, to be replaced by Dexter Fletcher. This might not have been a problem had the script been stronger, but Bohemian Rhapsody is a failed attempt to tell Freddy Mercury’s life story. So badly is this handled that the last segment of the film, dealing with the events prior to Mercury’s death, is scrambled in such a way that one gets the impression that the events of six years of his life seem to have taken place in three days.

Not even dramatic necessity or the wish to avoid showing anything morally objectionable can excuse such an unsatisfactory narration. It would be better not to have done it at all. The result is that Bohemian Rhapsody is neither a good bio-pic nor an exploration of Queen’s music.

In fairness, the cast acquit themselves well, rendering some fine and convincing performances. This is especially true of Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury – an explosive performance which superbly conveys the strutting, audience-commanding presence of the man. But here again, we can turn to the archival footage and see the original. Good as the impression is, one might as well look at the original.

In the light of the fact that Queen had such a major impact on popular music and achieved such musical excellence, one would have liked a film that helped the audience better understand the dynamics of the group and more fully appreciate the art and originality of Queen. It might even have been able to offer some solution as to the mystery of what the song Bohemian Rhapsody is actually about! 

As it is, the film shows little more than most fans already know about the group, and does little to help anyone, fan or not, to further appreciate what a major influence Queen had on music and how extraordinary was their artistic achievement. Although it is a diverting and somewhat entertaining reminder of the achievement of Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody is simply a missed opportunity.