Saturday, January 26, 2019

"Bohemian Rhapsody": review

Ah, Queen.

Queen is a guilty pleasure of mine. I normally tell people, when they ask about my musical tastes, that I'm stuck in the 1980s, listening to favorites like Huey Lewis and the News, Sting (newly liberated from The Police back then), Heart, Tina Turner, etc. I always somehow neglect to mention how much I enjoyed—and still enjoy—listening to Queen, perhaps the only band to inspire me to dance when no one is looking. But the fact of the matter is that, even if I don't mention it aloud, Queen is one of my favorite groups. People say Queen was revolutionary and innovative; I don't know about that. I've often found them singable, danceable, quirky, and hilarious. The song "Bohemian Rhapsody" always cracks me up because, at the very end of that wild, musical roller-coaster ride, the song ends with a goddamn gong. That gong would be pretentious in any other context, but at the end of "Bohemian Rhapsody," it's a mockery of pretentiousness—a joyful salute to the people who get the joke, and a massive fuck-you to the staid, stodgy, tweedy people who don't. How can you not love a group with the balls to end a song that way?

"Bohemian Rhapsody" is also the title of a 2018 biopic that has done surprisingly well here in South Korea, remaining at #1 on the movie charts for more than two months—a rare feat, indeed, in a short-attention-span culture where movies normally hold sway over the public for no more than two weeks. "Rhapsody" was also apparently a global success; as of this writing, it has raked in an incredible $800 million on a budget of about $52 million. Perhaps this is due to the talented direction of Dexter Fletcher, who took over for Bryan Singer after Singer was fired. Perhaps the movie owes its success to the incredible Rami Malek, about whom we will say much shortly. I think, though—and this is a point that the movie itself makes—the success of "Rhapsody" comes down to the enduring popularity of Queen and its songs. Some groups and solo singers are known in history as one-hit wonders; not so with Queen, and every song featured in this movie will be one that any audience anywhere will immediately recognize.

While Freddie Mercury (Malek) is the focus of the film, the biopic is actually about Queen as a group. We start in 1970, with Freddie—known back then as Farrokh Bulsara, son of Indian-Parsi parents—working at Heathrow Airport as a baggage handler. Farrokh's father disapproves of his son's lifestyle, and he reminds his son of his own maxim for living: good thoughts, good words, good deeds—a Zoroastrian concept that echoes Buddhism's notion of "the three karmas," i.e., thoughts, words, and deeds. Farrokh has been following the band Smile for some time, and when Smile's lead singer suddenly quits, Farrokh offers his services to guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). The three take on bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello, who played "Tim the human piece of toast" in "Jurassic Park" all those years ago), and the band Queen is born.

The film follows Queen's fantastic trajectory as they pick up lawyer Jim "Miami" Beach (Tom Hollander), personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), and band manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen). There are some humorous scenes as the band tries to convince a doubtful EMI Records exec played by Mike Myers (again affecting a Scottish accent) that their music is actually worth fighting for. While Queen's public trajectory seems optimistic, Farrokh—now legally known as Freddie Mercury—is having problems in his personal life. Having originally fallen in love with and pledged commitment to Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), Freddie discovers that he isn't a monogamous heterosexual, but rather a promiscuous bisexual or homosexual (there's some controversy on this point). In any event, he confesses his bisexuality to Mary, and their relationship is forever changed. Mary goes on to find another boyfriend, but she remains friends with Mercury. Later on, Freddie succumbs to the temptation of going solo, and he discovers he has AIDS. Things come to a triumphant close, however, when Freddie apologizes to his bandmates; they come back together and rock the house at the massive 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium, England.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" features large swatches of Queen's music, but for most of the movie, these songs are chopped up and never heard properly from end to end. It isn't until the film's final reel, which features an absolutely astounding, you-are-there recreation of the Live Aid concert, that we hear a performance almost in its entirety. That scene alone must have been a gargantuan production, and it's pulled off beautifully. YouTube already features shot-for-shot comparisons of the actual concert and the movie's version of events, which turns out to be, at least for that part of the movie, rather faithful to real life.

Overall, I found the movie to be a touching affirmation of life and individuality. Freddie, several times, declares that he has to be the person he was meant to be—this despite the disapproval of people like his very traditional father (who does come around in the end). The movie is also a testament to sticktoitiveness: when you're up against a beady-eyed record executive who has barely heard of you and doubts your talents, that's the time when perseverance is crucial.

I don't know enough about the actual biographies of Queen's band members to comment on the film's realism. I can, however, say that, for a biopic, the film does seem to pull its punches regarding Freddie's sexuality, the intra-band conflict, Freddie's AIDS diagnosis, and how he suffered before dying. I think the film is meant as something like a gentle tribute—not a hagiography, exactly, but something fully intended to portray all the principals in a positive light, and to give us a story with an uplifting ending. One thing the movie stresses is how Queen, unlike many other bands of the era, was so focused on having audiences interact directly with the band by actually participating during concerts. This is exemplified during the "We Will Rock You" scene, in which we see the stomp-stomp-clap idea put forward, developed, and performed on stage. Throughout the film, we see audiences stomp-clapping with the band, singing notes in choral repetition with Freddie as the chorus leader, and intoning Queen's lyrics even before the band itself can sing them. While I suspect this sort of audience behavior wasn't unique to Queen, the movie submits that Queen was instrumental (no pun intended) in promoting this body-centered, performer-audience dialogue.

At the center of the film stands pint-sized actor Rami Malek in the role of Freddie Mercury. If you know anything about the history of this film's production, you know that Malek wasn't the filmmakers' first choice for the role: they had originally wanted cringe-comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen actually looks a hell of a lot like Mercury; give him the right mustache, and he's the spitting image of the singer. Cohen is also talented and chameleonic enough to do a good job in the role, but in 2013, he left the production because of supposed "creative differences." Malek stepped into the role... and my God, he hit it out of the park. Wearing a plate to simulate Freddie's protruding incisors (the film tells us that Mercury was born with four extra incisors, widening his mouth and allowing a greater vocal range), Malek nails every quirk and nuance of how Mercury moved, spoke, and thought, almost down to the atom. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I'd call this a mesmerizing performance. Malek has rightfully been nominated for both an Oscar and a BAFTA award for his acting in this film; if he wins, it will be a well-deserved victory, whatever the film's overall merits and demerits.

One unsung hero deserves to be mentioned, here: Marc Martel, a Canadian "soundalike" singer whose voice uncannily resembles that of Mercury. It's Martel's voice you're hearing whenever Rami Malek appears to be singing. Finding Martel must have been a casting coup for the filmmakers, and the Canuck doesn't disappoint.

The biopic may have taken gross liberties with the facts, as most biopics do. But I don't care. I came away from "Bohemian Rhapsody" with a lump in my throat—not from sadness, but from happiness. At one point in the film, girlfriend Mary Austin tells Freddie that, given his whirlwind life, full of sex and drink and drugs, he's "burning the candle at both ends." Mercury may have done just that, but while he was on this earth, he was a gift and a treasure. He and his merry band left us with a legacy of singable, danceable, quirky, and sometimes even hilarious music that we can come back to again and again whenever we need cheering up. For that, I'm thankful, and I highly recommend "Bohemian Rhapsody."


John Mac said...

Great review! Had the chance to see the film while in the USA last fall, but alas, let the opportunity slip by. Your post makes me regret that decision all the more.

Interesting note (to me at least). My daughter is a big Queen fan. When she was in high school she was up in the attic and found my vinyl albums and started playing some. One day she came running down stairs all excited and said "Queen is amazing! How come they don't make music like this anymore!"

Made her daddy proud she did...

Kevin Kim said...


I hope you get a chance to see the movie. The Live Aid scene deserves to be watched on a big-screen TV. It's as incredible as the "Shining" reproduction in "Ready Player One."

Your daughter has good taste in music!

John from Daejeon said...

I don't say this to too many people, but I also enjoy Queen's music. This was also a very good film for most of us who got Queen as you can see by the sorry response of elitist critics but who were drowned out with the overwhelming response of us fans putting our nearly billion dollars in cash where our mouths, and ears, are. So, I think your review is just about pitch perfect as to the film, the singing voice of Martel, and the acting of Malek.

The only blight on the glorious day that I saw it was that I was immediately afterwards drug into a screening of a foreign film I really had no desire to see, "AndhaDhun," which put a damper on my "Bohemian Rhapsody" word of mouth discussions I was so eager to share with my friends, family, acquaintances, etc. Instead, after I left the movie theater after watching "AndhaDhun," it ended up being the only film I could talk about not only the rest of the evening, but for the next few weeks. I was blown away by one of the best films I've ever seen and now I'm being drug to other Indian films like the endearing "Badhaai Ho." If you get a chance, I'm not the only one who highly recommends "AndhaDhun," and it is well worth the watch, subtitles and all.

Kevin Kim said...

Daejeon John,

"Rhapsody" was, all in all, a fine tribute to Queen. Now, we have to look forward to Taron Egerton's Elton John biopic. Based on the preview I saw, I'm not really feeling it. Egerton strikes me as a strange casting choice. He's a talented and likable actor, to be sure, but is he right for this role? I guess time will tell.

Charles said...

OK, I am going to have to call BS on your use of "guilty pleasure" here. If you told me, for example, that you were a My Little Pony fan, yeah, I would be down with the use of the phrase. If someone who presents themselves as a gourmet secretly chows down on garbage plates whenever they get the chance, that's a guilty pleasure.

But Queen? Queen is one of the greatest bands of all time. If it is almost universally agreed that something is great and awesome, it can't really be a guilty pleasure--at least the way the term is generally understood (i.e., the thing being enjoyed is considered by society at large to be a thing that should not be enjoyed by people like you).

Unless... you are using the term literally. That is, you derive pleasure from the music of Queen, but you feel guilty about it at the same time. If this is the case, I must ask you why? Why do you feel guilty about loving music that is awesome and classic and legendary? Own it!


(Also: I haven't seen this yet. Too many other films on my backlog at the moment.)

Kevin Kim said...


I know you've been trying intermittently for years to prove that I can't use English properly, but I assure you that the words "guilty" and "pleasure" have been used correctly—and in collocation, no less. I'll refer you to the part of the review where I write:

"But the fact of the matter is that, even if I don't mention it aloud, Queen is one of my favorite groups. People say Queen was revolutionary and innovative; I don't know about that. I've often found them singable, danceable, quirky, and hilarious."

The "I don't know about that" indicates that I didn't (and, really, still don't) have my finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist. As far as I knew way back when, liking Queen meant turning in your man card.

Is the idea that Queen is one of the greatest bands ever supposed to be an objective assessment? If so, then comparing an objective assessment to my subjective, out-of-touch experience of Queen is like comparing apples to oranges.

I also think you vastly, egregiously underestimate the earth-shattering cultural and historical significance of "My Little Pony," a phenomenon that has changed the destinies of entire nations.