Bohemian Rhapsody feels like dirty pool. Either one of the next two things are true: Either the surviving members of Queen still resent the fact that so much of their legacy is wrapped up in Freddie Mercury that they had to make this revisionist history of a movie, or the surviving members are so cinematically tone deaf they inadvertently made a movie that sure comes off like that’s what they were trying to do.
Before we get too far, let’s get this out of the way: Rami Malek is really great as Freddie Mercury. He’s so great that he almost sells what this movie is trying to pawn off on us. I do wish he could have, somehow, been in a movie that was kinder to the legacy of Freddie Mercury – one the band didn’t control – but that’s not the way it went down. So what we get is Rami Malek performing his ass off as Freddie Mercury in what’s essentially a Brian May and Roger Taylor propaganda film. (This film couldn’t get made without the surviving member’s cooperation. Or, at the very least, the music couldn’t be used. Anyway, the results of this agreement are troubling.)
A popular phrase to use when describing a biopic is “paint by numbers.” It’s a phrase used so often, it gets me thinking about the actual popularity of painting by numbers. Honestly, I don’t remember painting by numbers being a big part of my life or really anyone I know. Anyway, I’ve already seen that term used to describe Bohemian Rhapsody and it’s inaccurate. A more accurate way to phrase it would be, “Painting by numbers but the artist is really bad and can’t read numbers and just puts any color where he damn well pleases.”
Directed by Bryan Singer (I mean, sort of, since from most accounts he got fired off of this movie and his troubles just seem to be beginning), Queen’s historic performance at 1985’s Live Aid bookends the film. Yes, we see young Freddie join the band. We see him declare his everlasting love for a woman. We see him then fall in love with a man. There were concerns Bohemian Rhapsody wouldn’t address Freddie being gay – which is a crazy thing to even be worried about in 2018, but then again this movie certainly has plenty of archaic surprises lurking inside of it. Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t ignore Freddie’s homosexuality, but instead kind of twists and warps it into what the movie presents as his downfall.
Look, there’s Freddie, doing drugs and hanging out with all his gay friends, while the rest of the band – those squeaky clean choir boys – tell Freddie how they can’t stay and party because they all have to get home to their wives and kids. You see, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon are wholesome people who would never partake in the rockstar lifestyle like Freddie Mercury does. The whole movie is basically those three shaking their heads at Freddie’s behavior. And what pisses me off about it is that those three (to be fair, Deacon didn’t have anything to do with the movie) are still around to offer this version of events while Freddie isn’t here to say, “Wait a minute, what about the time you did such and such.”
A few months ago I was at bar trivia and a question was, “What is the only four-member group where every member is in the songwriting hall of fame.” The answer was Queen. So I understand why the other members would like their due. But it all seems to come at Freddie’s expense. There are two separate scenes of Freddie showing up late for rehearsal while the other band members have their own ideas, like Brian May coming up with the beat for “We Will Rock You,” then having hung-over Freddie ask, “Wait, what’s that?” Or when Freddie is ranting and raving about how he wants to do more disco records, but then there’s John Deacon over off in the corner randomly playing a baseline, “dum dum dum, du du du dum da dum.” Then Freddie again asks, “Hold up, what’s that?,” then a smash cut to the band playing “Another One Bites the Dust” in concert.
The third act of Bohemian Rhapsody feels like complete fantasy. The conflict comes from Freddie wanting to pursue a solo career, which in the film results in the band breaking up (which doesn’t appear to have actually happened, at least in any official capacity) – only to reunite for Live Aid. There is literally a scene of Freddie begging the band to take him back. Pleading that his solo career just doesn’t work without the rest of the band and he’s nothing without them. Then the rest of the band literally sends Freddie out into the hallway like a petulant child so the adults can talk. (If Freddie Mercury were alive today I suspect this is the scene that would piss him off the most.) And then, it’s in these Live Aid rehearsals that an obviously ill Freddie tells the rest of the band that he has AIDS. (From published accounts, Freddie wasn’t diagnosed with HIV until 1987.)
Look, I get it, scripted films are not documentaries. And, sometimes, creative license has to be used to move a story forward. But I’ve never seen a film distort its facts in such a punitive way. It’s like the movie wants to punish Freddie Mercury. Again, he’s begging the band to take him back, now, in front of the world to see, because Freddie had the audacity to go solo. (Which doesn’t even appear to be true.) Now, it’s not mentioned that it was actually Roger Taylor who was the first member of Queen to release a solo album. Oh, yeah, and then a second one. Oh and then Brian May released his own solo album. And that Freddie Mercury’s first solo album wasn’t released until 1985. And John Deacon would perform on Mercury’s second and final solo album.
(As an aside, looking at the Wikipedia page for Mercury’s Mr. Bad Guy, it contains this sentence: “Initially, the album was supposed to feature duets with Mercury and Michael Jackson. They recorded ‘There Must Be More to Life Than This,’ but Mercury dropped out of any further collaboration after feeling uncomfortable working with Jackson’s pet llama in the studio.”)
Again, from published accounts, Freddie Mercury was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, two years after Live Aid. (If this isn’t true, there isn’t any concrete evidence to the contrary.) Mercury’s tragic death from AIDS was a defining moment in the early ‘90s fight for AIDS awareness. To now retcon his illness into his Live Aid performance seems flippant and cruel. But that’s the nature of this movie, to reposition and recast Freddie’s life as how the rest of the band members seemed fit to do. I have no idea if it was malicious – probably, consciously, it wasn’t – but regardless, this is the end result: to punish Freddie Mercury 27 years after his death. And, without the surviving band members’ permission, this movie couldn’t use Queen’s music. In hindsight, it would be better if this movie didn’t exist at all.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ opens in theaters on November 2nd. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.