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BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018) review

November 11, 2018

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written by: Anthony McCarten (screenplay and story by), Peter Morgan (story by)
produced by: Jim Beach and Graham King
directed by: Bryan Singer (with an uncredited Dexter Fletcher)
rated: PG-13 (for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language)
runtime: 134 min.
U.S. release date: November 2, 2018

 

“It’s an experience, something that people will feel belongs to them.”

 

In a world with few successful second acts, British rock band Queen has managed third, fourth, and now a fifth act, thanks to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This biopic of the band and its flamboyant lead singer Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) is almost tailor-made to bring new fans into the fold. Almost by default, actually, as the film does many disservices to diehard fans and especially the legacy of Mercury himself.

The film itself is standard biopic fare. Vocalist/pianist Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, joins a band desperate for a new lead singer, reinvents the band in his own image, and band achieves worldwide success thanks to the singer’s extraordinary talents. Lead singer’s own ego threatens to destroy the band, but not really because lead singer is being manipulated by a devious manager. Lead singer then gets devastating diagnosis moments prior to reconciling with the band just in time to play the biggest show of their lives.

 

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The screenplay by Anthony McCarten falls victim to a lot of the same issues of manufacturing drama as his previous efforts “The Theory of Everything” and “Darkest Hour.” In other words, if you’ve seen those films and found yourself wondering, “There’s no way that could’ve happened like that in real life,” there’s a better than average chance you’re right. Timeline inconsistencies and narrative condensation aren’t new pitfalls for a music biopic, but McCarten has made these devices his stock in trade over the years.

If the film has a kindred spirit anywhere in cinema, it’s with last December’s “The Greatest Showman.” Both films have many issues that prevent them from being great movies, but those issues don’t matter to your average filmgoer. This is a crowd-pleasing good time that gilds the lily to the point where its myriad problems melt away thanks to the next, uplifting musical performance. Malek is exceptionally good in the lead role, to the point where literally no other single performance really matters that much.

Both films play fast and loose with their subjects and in the case of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s often to the detriment of the truth. Freddie Mercury is portrayed as a divisive figure within the band, which consists of guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), even when it’s clear that he’s being manipulated by outside forces. The film is almost unfair to Mercury’s legacy, but not overtly so; It’s much more—sinister isn’t the word, but it’s close enough. Omitting key facts like Taylor’s having released two solo albums before Mercury paint the powerhouse lead singer as either a knowing villain or, at the very least, willfully ignorant to the machinations of those around him.

 

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Like “The Greatest Showman” however, none of that matters when another musical number is always around the next corner to distract from the film’s narrative shortcomings. There are moments when the film soars, but its ambitions never threaten to take things too high, Icarus-style. Singer and McCarten prefer to treat things like a child flying a kite, letting it take flight during its expertly recreated live performances, but always keeping the leash short enough to reel it back in at a moment’s notice.

If the worst thing to come of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is that it brings a new generation of fans to this incredible band, than it almost seems worth it in the end. However, I would hope that anyone drawn beyond the music to the story of the band will take the time to discover the truth. This is just a little too tidy a story with plenty of straw men villains throughout, but a disappointing tendency to make Mercury both protagonist and antagonist.

To paraphrase that old adage from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” any biopic should take it upon themselves to print the legend rather than the facts, but it should never be at the expense of the legend. Humanizing our heroes is a theme running through cinema at the moment, and Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” does this masterfully for Neil Armstrong. “Bohemian Rhapsody” tries and fails to do the same for Mercury, keeping him all too human all of the time.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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