Tuesday, April 23, 2024

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Hits Nothing but Flat Notes

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Love or hate Freddie Mercury, I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t deserve such a tepid and perfunctory slapdash bore as Bohemian Rhapsody. Come to think of it we don’t deserve it either. Both Freddie, and we the audience deserve better; so much better.

Bryan Singer’s name is on the credits, even though he left the project midway through. Different reports have him leaving at different times. Either way, Singer left before the filming was done and Dexter Fletcher took over. Much like with Justice League, the name on the credits is the one who gets the praise—or in this case blame.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a narrow sighted biography of one of the most popular and infamous rock bands in modern history. Actually, it’s more than that, it’s also unimaginative and staid. A tragedy considering it’s subject matter is Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) one of the most extravagant and flamboyant front men of living memory.

Imagine if you will, you are given the seemingly impossible task to film Freddie Mercury writing the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody? How would you film it? Would you film it? In the case of Singer, he chose to have Mercury sitting in a chair madly scribbling away. Every once and a while pausing to look up with a faraway look in his eyes. He mutters “Brilliant,” then goes back to writing. I recognize this is a difficult scene to write and direct. But it’s moments like these where we get a distinct impression that Singer isn’t even trying.

For starters, for a movie called Bohemian Rhapsody, surprisingly little of it is dedicated to the creation of the song itself. Understandable, since it is a biopic of a man after all, not a song. Except if we’ve learned anything from the likes of Selma and Lincoln, is that biopics are at their best, usually, when they focus on a specific point in the subject’s life.

Bohemian Rhapsody, however, has chosen the classic method, which is to cover the whole of Mercury’s life. It does this while somehow telling us nothing we didn’t already know or couldn’t learn just from listening to a Queen album. We see his family at the beginning of the first act. But after the band becomes a success they are never even talked about until the end.

You could argue that this is intentional; Anthony McCarten’s script is illustrating how Mercury has alienated everyone from his life. When we first meet Mercury’s father Bomi (Ace Bhatti), he comes home only to find Freddie leaving. The two argue over Freddie’s youthful listlessness. Bomi lectures him about what it takes to be a man, “Good thoughts. Good words. Good deeds.” Poor Bhatti is made to utter these words in such a way we cringe as we realize these words will come back in the third act.

Freddie returns home on the day of the Live Aid concert to reconcile with his family. He’s not alone; he’s brought his new boyfriend Jim (Aaron McCusker). As soon as he arrives he’s off, he has a historic concert to attend too after all. Before he leaves he turns to his father and tells him of the Live Aid concert. “It’s like you always said, father: Good thoughts. Good words. Good deeds.” Bomi looks on as his son walks out the door and whispers, “Wheel out the telly.”

I couldn’t get over the fact that Mercury never invited his family. They are never included in his life whatsoever after Queen becomes a success. Did he not give them any money? Were they never invited to a concert? The house they are in at the end of Bohemian Rhapsody is the same as it was in the beginning.

Mercury’s heritage, religion, and family barely get two lines of dialogue. His sexuality, however, while never really discussed, is heavily and painfully alluded to. In one scene Freddie confesses to his wife, Mary (Lucy Boynton), “I’m a bisexual.” Mary sighs. “No, you’re gay Freddie.” It is the first and last time, outside of Mercury slapping a woman on the butt as he passes, that his bisexuality is even mentioned.

His gayness, however, is played to the level of camp. Granted Mercury himself was a camp icon, but Malek and Singer never quite pull it off convincingly. A couple of kiss scenes aside, most of Mercury’s sexuality is reduced to longing stares and heavy-lidded leering. It’s as if a Jacqueline Susann novel came to life and happened to be the front man for one of the greatest rock bands in history. Granted, to some extent that’s true, but Bohemian Rhapsody never has any fun with it.

I haven’t even mentioned the band itself. Queen consisted of Brian May (Gwilym Lee), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and Rex Taylor (Ben Hardy). If Bohemian Rhapsody is to be believed they were a very nice bunch of understanding people who looked on helplessly as Freddie fell into a pit of drugs, sex, and despair. I won’t say anything about them because throughout the entire runtime they never do or say anything remotely interesting.

During the inevitable and obligatory reconciliation scene between Mercury and the band, Freddie says he needs them. “I hired a group of guys who did everything I said,” Mercury tells them he missed them. They pushed back, that their ideas helped. Except we’re never shown any of that. Impressive, considering the number of scenes we’re shown of the band recording.

Malek as Freddie Mercury struggles to overcome a prosthetic overbite. Eventually, Malek grows more comfortable with the role by the end. But Malek never embodies Freddie Mercury because he’s only ever tasked with playing the idea of a shadow of Freddie Mercury. He doesn’t give a performance so much as an impersonation.

Singer has strewn together a series of scenes with absolutely zero context. Often times when we watch movies we will see a character sitting in an office. Then the director will cut to a scene where said character is driving. Our brain fills in the gaps. The director has cut out the character leaving the office, finding his car, starting it, and pulling into traffic. But Singer has cut out whole swaths of Mercury’s life while focusing on moments that mean nothing but for a cheap laugh later on.

One scene, in particular, goes on at great lengths with the band arguing in favor of Bohemian Rhapsody to be their next single to the EMI executive Ray Foster (Mike Myers). The band threatens Foster with leaving if he doesn’t make Bohemian Rhapsody their next single. Every character tells Foster that he will be sorry. “You’ll be known as the producer who lost Queen.”

On the one hand yes, the scene is necessary. It helps put into context the length of the song as well as it’s bizarre structure and content. Except the only real payoff is during the Live Aid concert we cut back to his office to see a distraught, drunken Foster.

Not to mention, why is Mike Myers playing Foster? He’s fine but it’s essentially Myers doing his Scottish accent from So I Married An Axe Murderer. Watching Bohemian Rhapsody, we start to realize a sort of existential dread. None of this makes any sense, dramatically, emotionally, or even logistically. Bohemian Rhapsody is the type of biopic that tells you the band is going on tour across America then cuts to farmland, with the subtitle “Midwest America.”

It’s a crying shame because Newton Thomas Sigel has gone above and beyond the call of duty to try and make Queen at the very least visually as operatic as their music. Every frame has an air of theatricality and visual pizazz to it. Unfortunately, Sigel is left to drift on his own with no help from Singer. Sigel’s camerawork can only save so much, and even he is forced to truncate his style. During the tour through America, Singer pushes us through a montage of Freddie posturing, saying the name of the city, and then freeze framing while lights and the name of the city float out from behind his silhouette.

Bohemian Rhapsody looks polished and slick and along with the songs, it’s impossible not to tap our toes along with the music. But that’s the problem. Queen is a band that when you listen to their song you feel as if you are at a Queen concert. Yet, when these same songs are played in the movie, the most I was moved to was-toe tapping.

Miraculously, Bohemian Rhapsody trundles along the life of Freddie Mercury and conveys almost nothing about the man. To some degree, you have to be impressed with a movie that spends so much time with a person and yet be, to some extent, even more in the dark about them than when you went in. Bohemian Rhapsody is about Freddie Mercury in the same way Them! is about the lives of ants. The only difference is the latter is more honest about its subject matter.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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