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From the first moments we see him, the wiry pre-performance energy, to the natural strut in his walk – even before hitting the stage – it’s Freddie.  The depth of actor Rami Malek’s commitment to portraying one of the greatest frontmen in rock history is astounding.  It’s not as much a performance as a channeling; with Malek seemingly possessed by Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, to at least get the swagger right if they couldn’t get a good script.  Malek’s is a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, even if the vehicle is less so.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY gives us a Cliff Notes version of the life and rise of one of the greatest bands in rock and roll, starting with the end, with what many consider the band’s zenith; their set at 1985’s historic charity concert, Live Aid.  After a long period of estrangement, the group came together to deliver what was a transcendent performance that betrayed none of the drama and tragedy behind the scenes.  After that framework, we meet young Freddie Mercury – formerly Farrokh Bulsara – doing what many a young person in late-sixties England would do on a Saturday night; hang out at the club, checking out the local bands, and the local talent.  Two great discoveries occur during these travels, he meets Mary, who will become the literal Love of his Life (He wrote a song about her, wanna hear it?), and he sees potential in a band called Smile; who in a great strike of fortune, have just lost their lead singer.

Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor don’t know what to make of this dark, foppish lad with a stunning set of outsized choppers, until that cavernous maw opens, and so do the heavens.  Joined by bassist John Deacon, and imbued with Freddie’s flamboyant style, and baroque compositions, the boys lose their Smile and gain a Queen.  Their live shows catch fire across England, and the band is signed to a recording contract, posthaste.  Queen’s mix of rock and glam captivates Europe (and Japan, and the US), but it isn’t until they invent one of the strangest pop singles ever that they peel off from the pack and establish themselves as something quite different to your average 3-chord wonder.

Of course, with fame comes swelled head and hangers-on, and Freddie, a grande dame from the outset, becomes too big for Queen’s britches.  He wanders off solo; testing and taking in every temptation on the way.  During the time of Queen’s most prominent fame, an illness begins to fester around the world, striking down the gay community in shocking numbers.  Even the rich and powerful are not exempt, and so Freddie discovers he has contracted AIDS.  In the days when the disease was new and treatment practically nonexistent, the diagnosis was considered a death sentence.  Freddie hides the sickness from all but his closest, and carries on until he can sing no more.  

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is plagued by its script’s clunkiness, and rickety outline structure.  Oftentimes, it becomes awkward exposition theatre: Early on, when the band starts really bonding, Freddie has his new friends and their mates round to his parents’ for tea.  That would be lovely if not for it seeming only a set-up for Freddie’s father -- who hasn’t been shown as the chattiest guy on earth -- to give a long-winded and terribly informative dissertation on anti-Indian persecution (The Bulsaras were Persian) in their home in Zanzibar, and the Bulsara family’s flight from it.  A worthy subject, to be sure, but would one really go on at length in the jolly company of a bunch of youthful guys and gals at teatime?  

There is much stilted explication throughout, with characters describing themselves and their situations, and why the audience should know them, as opposed to having natural interactions with other characters.  It feels rather like a Queen pop-up primer, with about the same level of sophistication.  It’s also used as a manipulation tool; such as when Freddie’s manager-turned-lover-turned-remora (Played by the appropriately-named Allen Leech), gives a tearful speech – apropos of nothing – letting us all know how he suffered as a gay man in Ireland.  That revelation made no difference to the story, at all.  It’s an even stranger choice when the film’s got a lot of band history to cover, and only so much time to do it – which was why I supposed they crammed in all the awkward, tell-it-don’t-show-it exposition, edgeways.

As part of the story of one of rock’s most legendarily -- and elegantly -- debauched stars, it is confounding that Mercury’s vices are handled with extreme kid gloves.  One might have expected Freddie’s raunchy life to be depicted as -- raunchy, perhaps?  His debauchery is more hinted at and alluded to than anything.  According to this film, it seems people contract AIDS by urgent hugging -- of which, even that Freddie does next to none.  There is one sequence where Freddie throws one of his legendary bacchanals, which shows us a weird mashup of allusions to Queen hits -- fat-bottomed girls riding bicycles, for instance -- that is supposed to evince what a hard partier he was.  The iniquity was so sanitised for the viewer’s protection, that more than once I wondered whether this was a Disney film.

I had forgotten about reading that BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY had changed directors during shooting, but once reminded, it made perfect sense.  There is a feeling of disjointedness throughout, in terms of pacing, chronology, and narrative.  The way the film jumps about from one era to another, and makes claims that seem dubious (Particularly regarding the timing of Queen’s reception in the US), is confusing to Queen fans, and uninitiated, alike.

Speaking of dubious claims, while understanding a little thing called poetic license, there is a patently false assertion that Mercury’s family were supportive -- or even aware -- of Freddie’s gay lifestyle.  It might have been well-intentioned, but Mercury’s own mother stated he never came out to them, and so the scene feels mawkish and manipulative, meant to tie up Freddie’s story with a big, red bow.

The film does contain some saving graces.  It does exhibit moments of real humour, mostly amongst the band members:  The considerations to release drummer Roger Taylor’s blissfully uncomplicated “I Love My Car,” over the byzantine, bizarre “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the band’s lead single, are a riot.  So, too, are the reunion negotiations between the estranged members after Freddie’s ego and bad behaviour leads him crawling back to the band with tail firmly tucked between legs.  Those scenes, even in the strife of massive ego, drugs, and money, displays the strange, but powerful connection between the four men, who really, at heart, are a crew of oddballs, nerds and misfits, gravitated together by the splendid sounds they conjured.

As required by any film about Queen, we have a steady supply of razor-tongued wit and cut-downs from our notoriously acid singer.  Archly funny is Freddie’s clever workaround against the refusal of radio stations to play the epically long “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  He employs his close friend, the puckish, naughty, British camp legend, Kenny Everett, to spin it ad nauseum during his national DJ set.  Alternately, there’s also a ton of cheese to swallow along with those glimpses of cleverness.  Witness the forcedly cheerful creation of Queen anthem, “We Will Rock You,” and cringe.

Waxing rhapsodic on Malek’s performance a bit more:  A bit of unintended comedy is watching the actor try to manoeuvre his way around the giant Mercury choppers -- and not always victoriously.  As Malek seizes every part of Mercury’s physicality, he makes the teeth a defiant part of Freddie’s attitude -- not that he needed any help in the attitude department.  The sass, the shade, the viper’s tongue, the costumes, the utter fabulosity is on full display, but Malek brings us into the heart beneath the over-the-top image.  While so much emphasis is set on Mercury’s relationship with his constant Mary, these scenes take us beneath his glittered shell, and reveal a real vulnerability.  While I don’t reckon Freddie Mercury regretted living life to its fullest, even after his fatal diagnosis; Malek captures glimmers where one can sense that in some moments, Mary represents the simpler life that could have been.

Lucy Boynton is wonderful as Freddie’s “Best Friend,” and his ”Love Of My Life.”  Mary’s unflagging adoration and support of Freddie, even when she first senses something is amiss between them -- which turns out to be Freddie’s sexual confusion and increasing clarity -- is a marvel.  Mary is an anchor in the craziness that Freddie helps create, and while it is selfish, Freddie’s outburst when Mary eventually finds herself somebody to love her the way she needs to be, is understandable.  Boynton’s chemistry with Malek shows us how their real-life counterparts were such true soul mates. 

Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joseph Mazzello portray the other members of Queen, and they are all excellent, with Hardy capturing the impish, pretty Taylor, in all his trademark rock drummer hot temper and love of excess.  Lee’s Brian May, however, is uncanny.  Not only is Lee a dead ringer for the guitar god, physically, but the similarities in gesture and stance, as well as May’s slightly drawling manner of speech, made me forget I wasn’t looking at the real thing several times.  Each actor keeps apace with Malek’s star turn.

One thing BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY succeeds at too well is ripping open afresh wounds felt at Freddie Mercury’s passing.  It may have felt more intense due to Rami Malek’s complete capturing of Mercury’s spirit, as well as the film being a showcase of the glory of the Queen catalog.  The filmmakers make the bold decision to recreate Queen’s entire 20-minute set at Live Aid, to stunning effect.  There really will never be anyone like Freddie Mercury, and BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY brings that home, too well.

On the whole, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is wildly uneven, but very entertaining.  Thank goodness the magnificent performances of Messrs. Malek, Lee, Hardy, Mazzello, and Mlle. Boynton are the steady anchors that moor the clunky, unsteady script.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Nov. 2nd, 2018

 

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