Sunday, January 27, 2019

Review: "Bohemian Rhapsody" Turns Beautiful Art into Crass Commercialism

Scene from Bohemian Rhapsody
In the language of film, the Live Aid performance that ends the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody should be a moment of triumph. Having built up through the struggles of a career blocked by underestimating record executives, the idea of performing before a crowd of billions and having it be considered one of the greatest stadium performances in history should feel like the greatest culmination of any music biopic in history. However, there's something absent. For as brilliant as the direction is during this 20 minute reenactment, for as entertaining as Rami Malek's version of Mercury is as a performer, it's shallow. The build-up is not there. The songs have no deeper meaning when Mercury sings "I thank you all" during "We Are the Champions." It's a film in love with the idea of Mercury more than the human, and the film suffers greatly for it. While it reaffirms the idea that Queen is one of rock's boldest bands, it does little to add new text to the conversation in any meaningful way.

It would be one thing if Bohemian Rhapsody was reliant on the tropes of every music biopic ever. However, it stops there early and unfortunately never thinks to answer the harder questions it establishes. Mercury is a Pakistani immigrant who has the additional conflict of being bisexual in a less tolerant time. To the writer's credit, these are established as character traits of Mercury, but the film feels less interested in understanding what inspired the singer to write some of rock's bawdiest songs like "The Bicycle Song" and "Don't Stop me Now." Instead, it chooses the easier route. It presents a vision of Mercury that is too perfect, even as his life is riddled by a metaphorical mustache twirling villain boyfriend. Everything he does with Queen is perfect. He shows up hungover and still manages to produce "Another One Bites the Dust" perfectly on what plays as the first try. For a band who is constantly described as ambitious and different, there are no stumbling blocks to success. It merely happens in the scene following Mercury joining the band and performing perfectly on his first night as the drummer says "Ready Freddie?" While the comment could be read as fan service, it also comes across as pandering.

The film's lack of character building especially deflates the selling point of the film. "Bohemian Rhapsody" the song was recorded on the album "A Night at the Opera." While there's some insight into the recording, it is more impersonal montage than anything resembling inspiration. There is no explanation for how Mercury came up with the lines, or even attempts to explore the trials and errors of composing such a grandiose, operatic piece. It merely happens and gets written off as "poetry." The music of Queen doesn't seem to matter as much as the idea of Queen being the biggest band in the world, touring "Midwest USA" and performing on "The Day of Live Aid 1985." Whatever personal details they are don't given any insight beyond the surface level belief that Mercury's bisexuality was lonely with relationships that range from frivolous to sanitized relationships that culminate in being "friends." The other band members lack depth and end up feeling like footnotes, only ever talking in a way that says "I was there too." In fact, the surviving band members who worked on the film also sound like they had personal gripes that they inserted into this film to edit the truth to fit their ego.

There is also a lot and zero substance in the film simultaneously. On the one hand, it helps that Queen has such a great catalog. It's likely why their music continued to sell. To hear the songs on the big screen is definitely a pleasure, though the visuals and story that accompanies it makes everything feel like an afterthought. What does "Bohemian Rhapsody" mean? As the characters will be the first to say... you go me. There's no revelation and what songs are used as background features end up sounding cornball with no insight into how that scene inspired (if that is the intention) the song's creation. It's all just there, much like Mercury trying to be altruistic. Malek does his job on making the character feel empathetic, but the writing, directing, and editing all let him down enough that he suffers. You only ever see the brilliance that could've been in the Live Aid segment when the film allows a performance scene to play out for more than 30 seconds. For a film about a band known for theatrics, it sure lacks spectacle. It only gives enough to appease future GIF creators. Again, the images have something that looks fun, but what does it mean if we never see beyond the surface?

Without any true depth into Mercury's artistry, the film plays as a vindictive and cheap cash-in that has taken the world by storm. There is potential for Bohemian Rhapsody to have something to say, especially given the outgoing nature of Mercury. It could maybe explain where his inspiration came from, or how being a bisexual Pakistani immigrant impacted his life in any way. It's all commented on, but imagine if there was actual struggle, any conflict that would dry Mercury to be a sympathetic figure. He doesn't need to be a gay martyr, nor does the film necessarily need to revel in his AIDS death (though the way it handles the situation is a tad contrived and offensive). He just needs to be a musician with a lot of great ideas. The fact that "We Will Rock You" with its foot stomp and hand claps got more depth than the triumphant six minute magnum opus "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a downright shame. Then again, it's evident of who's telling the story. It isn't about making Mercury into more of a hero, but everyone else into more relevant ones. Even then, there was a way that could've been done that was competent, serving as the basics of traditional drama. Instead, its creators are nudging themselves into the frame, remind us that for all of Mercury's altruism, Bryan May came up with the foot stomp and hand claps of "We Will Rock You." It's a decent idea had it not felt like a vindictive shoehorn.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a conventional biopic and is likely not to upset those wanting to worship the church of Freddie Mercury. There's no conflict to question his greatness, but it also makes him extremely boring. Even as he's flamboyant, he comes across as an image more than a man who sang songs that seemed more like mandates than love letters. There's a lot of factors that could be brought into the film that make it look even shallower - Bryan Singer's accusations, the lip syncing, the poor depiction of gay culture - but just as a biopic of a triumphant rock star, it's a dull mess. When the film ends with Mercury singing "We Are the Champions" at a piano, it's supposed to be the greatest feeling in the world, no matter how cornball the imagery complimenting it is. Instead, it just feels like someone singing a song we like because there is nothing to any of Queen's songs. They merely exist because all that was apparently needed was a studio. There was no trial and error, just several success stories after another. If the other members of Queen wanted to look great, they sure did a bad job. They not only made Mercury seem boring and conventional, they made the band look irrelevant. 

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