Want to begin by saying this isn’t going to be a traditional review; I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts on “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018), the biopic of the late Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) and the rock group that was a significant part of my own adolescence, Queen. I’ve seen the film twice to date, and I’ve been reading a lot of criticisms leveled against it for many reasons, none of which have put a dent in my personal enjoyment of it, but I’d like to discuss them anyway.
**** SPOILERS ****
The movie chronicles the rise of Freddie Mercury (an Oscar-worthy performance by Rami Malek) as a young Parsi immigrant living in London trying very hard to forget his heritage (we see that Mercury’s posh accent was a bit of an affectation) when he joins the going-nowhere band “Smile” and transforms them into the legendary, almost operatic rock group known as Queen. The movie’s focus is admittedly superficial; as a result, the group’s other members are presented primarily as sketches. Lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee, looking exactly like a young Howard Stern), the ‘pretty boy’ drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and newfound bass guitarist John Deacon (played by former “Jurassic Park” endangered child Joseph Mazzello) are given moments to shine, but make no mistake; Malek’s Mercury is the star of this particular show. This is no great surprise, either. 1978’s “The Buddy Holly Story” was more about Buddy Holly (Gary Busey) than The Crickets, and 1991’s “The Doors” was more about Val Kilmer‘s Jim Morrison than the other members of that particular group.
We see some of the processes and inspirations that led to some of the group’s greatest songs (the six-minute “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Love Of My Life,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You,” and so many others that were part of the musical background of my youth). Yes, liberties are taken. For example, we see the genesis of “We Will Rock You” taking place roughly three to four years later than it should have. The song was actually released in 1977, not the early 1980s (I remember… I had the 45; the B-side of which was “We Are The Champions”). There are other minor chronology nits, but none of them seriously popped me out of the movie, which is more a celebration of Queen’s music than anything else.
1984’s “Amadeus” wasn’t really a straight-up biopic of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) either, but it was through the lens of his somewhat fictionalized rival Antonio Salieri (Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham) that we saw/heard the sheer breadth of Mozart’s musical genius. Biopics are more about the how a subject is seen and felt by others than the by-the-numbers chronology of their lives.
Similarly, the events and characters of “Bohemian Rhapsody” are seen through the lenses of director Bryan Singer (“X-Men” “Superman Returns” “The Usual Suspects”) and the surviving members of the group, who were consultants on the project. Note: the movie was completed in late 2017 by director Dexter Fletcher; a last-minute replacement who finished the project after Singer was allegedly fired for both production delays as well as the studio’s inflexibility regarding a family tragedy of Singer’s.
The chronology of Mercury’s tragic AIDS diagnosis is also pushed up a bit. Mercury is shown breaking the news to his bandmates in 1985, shortly before their historic performance for the Ethiopian famine-relief charity concert, Live Aid (which is depicted as a show-stopper musical finale). Most people believe that Mercury told the group of his condition sometime in 1989, four years after Live Aid and two years before his death. The reason for the time-jumble was to end the film on what I believe was the right note; a showery, majestic celebration of the music…which was Mercury’s greatest legacy. That feels closer to how Mercury would most likely want to be remembered; he was all about his music all of the time, so this reshuffling of the chronology works in spite of the criticism.
On a personal note, I lost my best friend to AIDS in the fall of 1991 (a few months before Mercury died, in fact), and I can tell you from my own perspective that if I were ever to make a biopic of my friend’s life story (sadly cut short at age 24)? I would prefer to remember those things that made him unique and special to me, and not just focus on his heartbreaking death from AIDS. Mercury’s diagnosis is pushed up chronologically in the film, yes, but it’s hardly ignored. I think the decision to end the movie with the1985 Live Aid Wembley Stadium performance (arguably one of the greatest live rock performances of all time) was a more celebratory and uplifting creative choice than depicting Mercury in a slow, sad state of decline.
Parts of Mercury’s love life are conjectured as well. We can’t really know the private conversations between Mercury and his long-suffering “common-law wife” Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), or details of the relationship between he and the hard-won lover that stayed with him until the very end, Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). But given what we do know of Mercury’s life, the movie’s filled in bits are one possible interpretation. All biopics are an interpretation, even those that are authored or advocated by their living subjects.
I’ve also read many online complaints about the movie’s alleged ‘hetwashing’ (i.e. rewriting the bisexual Mercury’s love life to be more heterosexual-leaning) and from where I sat in the theatre (twice) this simply isn’t true. The film comes clean with both Mercury’s bisexuality as well as his devotion to both Jim and Mary. Even after he and Mary ended their relationship, they were still very much a part of each other’s lives; this is a documented fact. Just as it is factual that Mercury spent the last years of his life with his devoted lover Jim Hutton. The movie depicts both relationships as important to Mercury, and it is only by virtue that he knew Mary for a longer period that we see more of that particular relationship. Throughout the film, we see many flirtations between Mercury with men and women. As far as Mercury was concerned sexuality was a banquet, and like “Auntie Mame,” he felt most poor suckers were starving to death. This het-washing ‘controversy’ (recently championed by ex-“Star Trek: Discovery” producer Bryan Fuller as well) is a nonstarter. One of the inherent problems in cinematically depicting a bisexual life is the risk of a segment of the audience feeling slighted, and “Bohemian…” seems caught in that particular crossfire.
The liberties taken with “Bohemian Rhapsody” were not surprising. All biopics do this to some degree, even the most faithful ones. If one prefers a ‘just the facts’ film regarding Queen? I would recommend a thoroughly excellent BBC documentary on Queen which I’ll link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoM0vd4cWiY
For myself, I enjoyed “Bohemian Rhapsody” for what it was, not for what it wasn’t. Like the other musical biopics I’ve mentioned (“The Doors” “Buddy Holly Story” “Amadeus”) liberties are taken, and poetic license/conjecture are at play. What is more important to me however, is that the spirit, energy and sheer power of Queen’s musical repertoire is very much on display throughout the film, and it reawakened (no, ‘jumpstarted‘ would be more accurate) my youthful fervor for their music. My wife and I have had Queen musical ear-worms for weeks since first seeing the film earlier this month, and we voluntarily refreshed them with a second viewing earlier this week. EEEEOOOOO, indeed.
Long live the musical genius of Freddie Mercury and Queen. They really did rock me, and for that I’m forever grateful.