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Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Born in an era of acute self awareness, of constant deconstruction by way of parodies and spoofs (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story or more recently Popstar: Never Stop Popping come to mind) Bohemian Rhapsody is a painfully obvious run through of musical biopic bingo. Generic as they come, it makes for a general crowdpleaser to be sure but so does an indiscriminate pop band that manufactures the same radio friendly songs only  differentiable by  its lineup of attractive teen idols. Such conventionality is certainly not how I would describe a band as unique as Queen, nor its frontman Freddie Mercury or the song that this mediocre biopic draws its name. 

Opening to a montage set to “Somebody To Love” we pass through Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek)’s living space (complete with a large photo of legendary actress and noted gay icon Marlene Dietrich) as he prepares for Queen’s famous Live Aid performance. It is the first of many montages throughout the film each touching on but never fully engaging with the subject matter. There’s the discovery of Freddie Mercury followed by the winning over of the cynical record exec (in this case a fictional character played by Mike Myers in a tongue in cheek Wayne’s World tie in) and finally global success.  Other aspects like the band’s drug use or Mercury’s sexuality presumably deemed less glamorous are brushed aside via quick references of the “look we addressed it” variety. Similarly the genesis of hits like “ We Will Rock You” and “Under Pressure” are brief lightbulb moments used more to introduce the next song that will play over the next montage than actual insight into the creative process.  Thus what Bohemian Rhapsody becomes is a high budget VH1 special with less depth (and accuracy in some instances) than the Queen Wikipedia article.   

Like most biopics with an extraordinary figure as its subject  Bohemian Rhapsody has the unenviable task of condensing a lifetime into a little over two hours so cutting corners and taking some creative licence can be forgiven but at what point does it reduce a multilayered icon into a glorified highlight reel? Other biopics of similar ilk have one universal through line that drives the narrative. Walk The Line traced Johnny Cash’s life through his relationship with June Carter Cash; Ray examines Ray Charles’ struggles with substance abuse and Straight Outta Compton sees its artists formed as a counterculture only to be torn apart by ego and one slimeball manager. Bohemian Rhapsody loosely does this citing the influence of Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) as the source of dissent between Freddie and the band but that thread is never explored for anything more than its overt function – to provide a momentary roadblock before the band’s triumphant return at Live Aid. 

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Rami Malek’s solid performance cannot save Bohemian Rhapsody from generic genre trappings

It strives to present this clean cut idealized version of events (hence its decision to make Prenter the lone villain) while ensuring the film remains about Queen as much as it is about Freddie Mercury. Produced by the band’s surviving members this is understandable but the execution is reductive as it never makes Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) or John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) anything more than the one dimensional characters who hold the instruments while Freddie Mercury sings. A more interesting dynamic is between Mercury and his best friend / lover Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) that in a better movie would have been the driving force behind the narrative as the pair share a complex yet loving relationship aided by the palpable chemistry between Malek and Boynton. In terms of narrative direction, no one group holds autonomy over what Freddie Mercury and by extension Queen are but to not commit with any sort of conviction to any one direction turns what is an eccentric legendary group into just another vanilla band. The manufactured breakup and subsequent reconciliation that plays out is a testament to this. Cliche as they come (not to mention fictional) the film has a sterility in its all encompassing that lends itself to mass appeal but none of that makes it stand out.

Credited officially to Bryan Singer but later replaced by Dexter Fletcher after the former left the project for personal reasons, Bohemian Rhapsody’s crisis in directing seems to have affected every other creative decision associated with the film. Racing through the material so as to cover everything in its runtime the movie announces itself at every turn so much so you could walk away for half an hour and still pick up what is happening within seconds lending itself again to broad appeal but in the process limiting what can be done as a visual medium. There is a lack of cohesion in some scenes that break fundamental rules of continuity editing – a point that may be the result of the turnover in directorial control – while other scenes are butchered by over zealous editing of what should be a simple shot reverse shot conversation.

Where Bohemian Rhapsody finds success is in its montages wherein the film frequently focuses on Malek’s Mercury while a song from Queen’s extensive catalogue plays. This incorporation works because of Malek’s magnetic performance and the audience’s presumed familiarity and fondness for Queen’s music. Malek doesn’t capture Mercury’s physical appearance to an exact science but his zealous adaptation of his mannerisms and stage presence should be admired. Culminating in a truly captivating Live Aid performance, it is a shame the rest of the movie doesn’t carry the same energy or ambition as it does in this scene where each element down to each individual crowd member is recreated with painstaking attention to accuracy.  

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Bohemian Rhapsody is a by the numbers biopic through and through. It finds itself victim to an oversaturation of like minded films (with two more – Elton John’s Rocketman and David Bowie’s Stardust on their way) and extraneous circumstances. In the long production process that began in 2010 with Sasha Baron Cohen set to star, it is clear that the remaining members of Queen have grappled with how to properly honor their late frontman. Unfortunately in choosing the most generic way of doing so, they have only succeeded in making an extraordinary band seem ordinary.

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Review: Bohemian Rhapsody
Bohemian Rhapsody fails to rise above its cliches and subpar filmmaking technique despite a standout performance from Rami Malek