Bohemian Rhapsody movie review: Rami Malek is outstanding in a shoddy patchwork of Freddie Mercury's life events
Bohemian Rhapsody feels like listening to a 'Greatest Hits' compilation instead of experiencing the band’s discography from within.
It breaks my heart to say this: I hated Bohemian Rhapsody. What is worse, I so desperately wanted to love it.
I spent the entire movie trying to love it. And I came out feeling short-changed, robbed and disappointed, in that annoyingly “I told you so” kinda way. It is like you finally get to date the guy you have been crushing on for years, only to feel like he is just not what you want him to be. You see the red flags almost immediately, but you justify his shallowness, his vicious lies and exaggerations because you so desperately want to be with him. Until you just cannot lie to yourself anymore. It has been hours since I watched the film and I am still seething.
The problem with the film releasing earlier in other countries is that news and reviews of the film are all over the place before we get to form our own opinions. Even if we steer clear of
reading such reviews, someone on social media will end up writing about it and we’ll inadvertently soak in some of that point of view. I had not read a single review of the film. I watched one trailer back in May because my dear friends at Firstpost had asked if I would write about it. But that was it.
There were murmurs of the fans being divided about the film, as is the case with any biopic usually. Someone or the other would not be happy about it. It is really hard to make a biopic on
someone so magnificent, yet so flawed — someone so public yet so intensely private — without ruffling some feathers. So, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the film and enjoy Rami
Malek, whose Mr Robot role found a fan in me.
The film opens with a shot of Live Aid 1985, widely acknowledged as the best performance by any rock band. It remains a masterclass in how to mesmerise an audience for 20 minutes and not compromise on the quality of your music. Swiftly from there, the movie goes back to the early years of Farrokh Bulsara, who eventually became Freddie Mercury. The film traces the early days of Queen, takes the viewers through the creative processes of some of the band’s most iconic songs, while juxtaposing Freddie’s complicated personal life. We really were not expecting much more than that. Therein lies the problem. Watching a film like this is a schizophrenic experience for a film critic who loves the band. The fan in you wants to love the film. The critic cannot roll their eyes more than they already have. There’s nothing in this film that you already have not read on Wikipedia. Yet there is so much information available out there, particularly Lesley-Ann Jones’ delightfully visceral biography of Freddie Mercury.
How, in such a scenario, can the film be such a shoddy patchwork of what seems like a desperate attempt to play to the fans’ expectations? We are sentimentalists, but we are not idiots. I was prepared for the film critic in me to objectively view the film as a mushy experience. That the fan in me is disappointed is a feeling I was not prepared to handle. To make matters worse, the filmmaker(s) have contorted some very critical facts, left out some very critical ones and twisted timelines and characters to suit a cinematic formula of storytelling. That directors of biopics tend to take creative liberties with facts and characters in the interest of the film is understandable. But to show that Freddie is the product of some dubious choices he made is nothing short of blasphemy.
I am trying very hard to not give spoilers, but I do want to mention two particular ones that rankled with me. The omission of Barbara Valentin’s role in his life in the early '80s notwithstanding, I find it galling that the filmmakers decided to make it seem that Freddie was the first band member to pursue a solo career. Roger Taylor, in fact, had released two albums by the time Freddie decided to go solo. Painting Mercury’s decision as greed is such a misleading move. Particularly because this biopic will not be watched just by his fans; a lot of youngsters unfamiliar with his music will shape their opinion based on this film…whether or not we like that.
If that was not bad enough, the film made it seem like Queen broke up and reunited ahead of the Live Aid 1985 concert. Far from it, the band was recording material in the studio, just not
touring for a while. This was a conscious decision to focus on each members’ personal pursuits. Furthermore, Freddie by all accounts, did not know of his AIDS diagnosis for at least a year or
two after Live Aid. To make it seem like the diagnosis was the reason to get his band back is just exploitation of facts.
I am willing to ignore the after-thought characterisation of Jim Hutton. It was as if the film forgot about him after introducing him in the film and hurriedly gave him scenes in the end. I am
willing to ignore so many other exaggerations or discrepancies in favour of creating an engaging cinematic experience. But the distortion of those specific facts is dangerous. What a travesty to the legacy of Freddie Mercury. That this is a band-approved film is just salt on our wounds. That reason alone has made me lose some respect for the immensely talented surviving members of the band, particularly Brian May.
With my Bohemian Rhapsody-sized rant out of the way, I will tell you why despite all of that, the film is definitely worth a watch. The lesser you know about the band, the better the experience
will be. It is a jukebox of Queen songs interspersed with personal stories that do not delve in deeper. What the film gets on point is its casting. Malek had very big, glittery shoes to fill in and boy he owns them! He gets Freddie’s gait, his speech, his mannerisms, his pathos down to the T. He makes you a part of Freddie’s troubles and anxieties, with Rami’s rather big eyes mirroring a lot of what one could only imagine what the singer would have experienced. Rami has done more for Freddie than the talented Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon-fame), who wrote the film.
The supporting cast is particularly good with the roles of Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) being quite realistic despite factual inaccuracies. There are some very poignant scenes between Freddie and Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), as there are between him and the band members intermittently.
The music of the film is expectedly fantastic, with the makers pre-empting what a singalong fest this would be by putting karaoke-style lyrics on screen. In parts it feels like the makers were in a greater hurry to shove in the band’s greatest hits instead of fleshing out the characters and plotlines better. But while watching the film, you cannot help yourself from singing along. That has always been the power of Queen and the directors (Bryan Singer is officially the director though Dexter Fletcher finished the film) have done a stellar job in maintaining that. It is wonderful to feel a part of the band’s creative processes while they put together some of their biggest hits.
But by the end of the film, that is what it feels like… listening to a 'Greatest Hits' compilation instead of experiencing the band’s discography from within. We did not need all their big hits
stitched into the narrative. What we needed is the film to offer us something much more. I waited very patiently for that. Sadly, it never came.
All images from YouTube.
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