Like many 14-year-old boys, I went through my Queen phase. Bohemian Rhapsody, the song, seemed to have been in constant rotation around that time. Because when you’re exploring your musical identity and discovering your tastes, listening to a song with that many layers feels like you’re honoring some sort of masterpiece, and makes you feel cultured in the process. The song does things so unique to all the other classic rock you’ve surrounded yourself with. It’s prestigious and high brow. But at the same time, it’s catchy and accessible. You can say you like progressive rock without having to sit through an entire Yes album. It’s the music equivalent of watching Pulp Fiction.
As you get older, you acknowledge that the song is probably still a masterpiece, but also that it’s not nearly the best song in the world. It’s not even the best Queen song in the world. It’s overplayed, and upon reconsideration, may even come off as a sort of novelty. One that sounds like its mocking the operatic styles it’s borrowing from. One that young boys, singing along with their friends, can’t do so with a straight face.
My love affair with Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t last a terribly long in the saga that is my musical journey. Maybe I was searching for something new. Something to sink my teeth into. I had been obsessed with Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” for some time, and this was the next most epic thing. But if we’re talking about originality, you could say that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was merely Queen’s response. And in that case, wouldn’t that make it contrived? Wouldn’t that make it a novelty by definition? Or perhaps it’s the song’s commercial success that’s actually created the novelty.
Not much of this, so far, has to do with the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, but like the film, this review is about to change course about halfway through.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the film, follows the life of Freddy Mercury, played by Rami Malek, and how he met his Queen bandmates Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon. The movie starts out being extremely entertaining and funny, satirizing the music industry. Not because it’s really trying to, but because that was the nature of the personalities in the group. They snubbed their noses at proven formulas and structures, and made what they thought sounded great. They mixed experimentation with catchy melodies and it sounded really good. They were always thinking outside the box and pushing themselves to be better and different all the time, without any care to what everybody else was doing–at least that’s what the movie made it seem like.
And this review is about the movie itself. Pay no mind to whether or not the details are correct or if certain events actually happened. Because at the end of the day, most biopics change details in one way or another because, well, it’s usually more entertaining.
Throughout the first half of this movie, we’re laughing and learning a lot about how Queen made music. But around this halfway point, the film turns from rock biopic to character study. And along with that, turns its comedic, satiric tone into a pretty serious and intense drama–as if the former never existed. A movie with great comedic sensibilities seems to lose all of them.
We dive deep into Mercury’s personal life. His failing marriage and his relationship with the people he ends up surrounding himself with, who ultimately lead him down the wrong road. We want to see more of the band and that dynamic. Instead, we’re shown mere highlights, without any buildup to those highlights–making these important plot points feel more jarring. The film goes from seeing the band united and familial, to being completely divided and acrimonious towards Freddy, all within five minutes of screen time.
Often times throughout this story we feel like we’re missing chunks of information. And in a biopic, you don’t want that. This has nothing to do with historical inaccuracies–which people have seemed to bring to light with this movie–because those inaccuracies can be present while still feeling like you have the whole story.
Freddy’s persona preceded the band, itself, so it makes sense that the filmmakers wanted to show how the entire band was important, too. And director Bryan Singer, along with writer Anthony McCarten do a great job of showing this to a degree. However, the crux of the story is about Mercury. He’s by far the most intriguing of the bunch. But the band was more than just Freddy. The movie doesn’t always see it that way–even though it really wants to. And wants us to.
There’s a really good scene where we see how the band conceived “We Will Rock You”–Queen’s true magnum opus (which people just take advantage of due to its ubiquity). It’s really fun scene. We feel like we’re a fly on the wall. We want more of that. Just like we get a whole scene about the recording process behind the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” and it’s amazing.
The stuff about Freddy is worth mentioning as well, but when you start a story off with the kind of briskness that this film starts with, you expect the whole movie to be that much fun. And while the second half is intriguing, it’s not nearly as fun. The tone never feels locked in. Luckily, Bohemian Rhapsody finds those sensibilities again in the end.
On the plus side, the film has amazing performances from Malek and the rest of the crew, and the sound mixing is incredibly accurate. If this film was consistent all the way through, it would have been one of my favorite films of 2018.
At one point, the band is at a press conference for their new album, but instead the media keeps pestering Freddy about his personal life and controversies. Bandmate Brian May finally says to the press, “Anyone have any questions about music?” The question accurately symbolizes the trajectory of the band’s perception to everyone else, but that line is included to show the audience how it’s ridiculous to focus on one band member’s struggles when they’re holding a press conference to talk about music. But that’s exactly what this film does.