A Big, Bohemian Mess of a Movie

Queen was one of the most unique and iconic bands of the 1970’s and 1980’s, with a style and charisma all their own. Lead singer Freddie Mercury has gone down as one of rock history’s greats, and he certainly lived like a rock star in his day. That a movie about this band would be made was surely inevitable. However, I did not expect it to be this kind of movie.

This is an Oscar bait film.

First of all, the film was released near the end of the year, a tactic often used by films that are hoping to snag some Academy Awards in order to be fresh in the minds of Academy voters. It also picked a subject matter that plays at Hollywood’s love of nostalgia. What really gives it away as Oscar bait, though, is the movie’s style.

The cinematography has that characteristic, super-serious “I’m a biopic about some important person in history and you should take me seriously” style. Over-lit and washed-out with lots of white; conversations filmed and edited into a bog-standard “shot-reverse shot” series of close-ups. Every scene having a self-important sense of gravitas. The sort of film-making that characterizes such films as The King’s Speech or Argo or 12 Years A Slave. Not that that’s a bad thing; I do enjoy that sort of film. I’m just not convinced that it’s appropriate for the story of a band as rebellious, as energetic, and as fun as Queen. The style and the subject matter clash at a very fundamental level.

So, why? Why make this an Oscar bait movie? Well, I don’t know, obviously; I wasn’t in the Hollywood boardrooms where these decisions are made. But I do have an educated guess, and it all has to do with the film’s director: Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects).

See, there have multiple accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against Singer, and in 2014 he fought multiple lawsuits over these allegations. It wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out that Singer was hoping that winning some Academy Awards would redeem him in the minds of his Hollywood peers and the general public, allowing him to move past these allegations. Again, that’s just a guess on my part, and I could be completely wrong. Regardless of what Singer’s intentions were, he was fired just one month before filming on the movie was completed, and Dexter Fletcher had to step in to finish the film.

In any case, the style choice clearly works to this film’s detriment. This movie makes Queen look boring and lame, two adjectives that by rights should never be applied to this band. When the band’s most iconic songs are played – something any movie about any band would obviously want to do – it feels like a crutch. “Remember this song? Don’t you love it? Don’t you, by extension, love this film?”

That’s just the beginning of this movie’s problems. In any biopic, you want the movie to be about something. You want to focus on one aspect of the character or historical event you are portraying and really drive home your thesis about it. Operation Finale did a great job with this, taking a deep look at what kinds of men its main hero and villain were. Bohemian Rhapsody, in contrast, feels like it just doesn’t know what it wants to say. Is it about the struggles of an artist against the system? About the complicated relationships in Freddie Mercury’s life? A cautionary tale about the dangers of hard living? It feels like the film just can’t make up its mind. The whole movie is just one plot thread after another that starts and stops with no real coherence to them and no satisfactory conclusion to any of them.

One aspect of the movie that really suffers is the haphazard and mishandled “exploration” of Mercury’s backstory. We see hints at his troubled relationship with his family, and the clash between the sort of man Farrokh Bulsara (Mercury’s real name) was and his family’s conservative Indian traditions and values. Yet we only see glimpses of this conflict in a handful of scenes. In fact, for most of the movie’s runtime, it’s easy to forget that the film ever brought the singer’s family up at all. It’s like it’s there just to be a little token lip service to Mercury’s heritage. Heck, there are two specific times in the film where people throw racial slurs at him, and that is literally all that we see of Mercury having to deal with racism. I mean, if you are going to bring these topics up, you should actually examine them!

Having said all of that, I didn’t hate the movie. It has many good parts. Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, The Master) does a phenomenal job portraying Mercury. The scenes where we watch the band crafting their most memorable songs really work well at showing the creative process and the way the dynamics between the band members helped shape their music. My favorite scene is the one where the band members argue over “I’m In Love With My Car”. Yes, really.

The strongest part of the movie, however, comes in the final act. The climax is centered around Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985, and it is a real tear-jerker. It is a very powerful, emotional, and effective ending to the movie. If this movie does win any Oscars, it will be for Malek’s magnificent performance in these final scenes. It’s just such a shame that the rest of the movie couldn’t be as good as that ending.

Between the super-serious biopic style, the confusing mess of half-formed plot threads that covers most of the runtime, and the lack of any coherent message or theme, this movie’s good parts just aren’t enough to elevate the whole. I’m giving it a 5 out of 10. Another one bites the dust, indeed.

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