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Bohemian Rhapsody: The movie, the critics

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220px-bohemian_rhapsody_posterWhat I wanted to do, really, was see Bohemian Rhapsody, the new Freddie Mercury biopic, on its first day out, so that I could make up my own mind about it without the critiques or praises of others clogging my brain. However, a combination of it being released in Europe a week before North America (theoretically, I could have flown to London for the premiere, but that seemed a bit much) and a lack of willpower on my part meant that I did read some early reviews.

Which were not exactly sterling, let’s put it that way (Bohemian Rhapsody review – Queen biopic will not rock you).

But I at least managed to keep my UK reading to a minimum and get to the North American preview performance.

My friends, I loved the movie.

Now, my husband’s said that it was Queen, so of course I’d like it. So I would just like to point out that I do not, in fact, like every Queen-adjacent product. I have this Queen Symphonic Tribute CD that I can’t stand, because the musical arrangements are crap. I’ve slogged through horribly written Queen bios. I did not enjoy the combination of Brian May, Roger Taylor, and Paul Rodgers performing Queen songs.

But this movie? It felt that it was made for me. I enjoyed seeing how they compressed events and use allusions to cover a decade and a half of Freddie’s life in 2 hours 15 minutes. I reveled in all the little in-jokes and references that only real Queen fans would catch: Jim Beach mucking with the sound board at Live Aid. Adam Lambert playing a trucker who catches Freddie’s eye. And I was totally captivated by Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie, which at times nearly brought me to tears.

All the music performance scenes are outstanding. And that whole final scene at Live Aid. Man. That’s every bit as good as you hope it will be. (And I love Live Aid almost as much as I love Queen.)

Being somewhat masochistic, and having seen it now, I can’t help reading the North American reviews. Now, some of them were positive (like the Toronto Star‘s), even if grudgingly (my favourite of these being the Washington Post’s: Bohemian Rhapsody is bad. Go see it anyway). But more were negative, some scathing (Globe and Mail: 1 star! New York Times: Mud on your face! Big disgrace! [that’s at least a clever diss.]). All adding up to a mere 55% (now 60%) positive critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

But a 92% (now 95%) positive audience score.

The most common complaint from the critics is that the movie is not that creative or edgy. And I’m going to grant that this is true. It’s pretty conventionally told, with a script that can’t seem to help but have its characters spell out its themes, however awkward the resulting dialog (The band is family. Freddie invents himself. Queen are a band of misfits.), rather than develop them through more natural interactions.

It’s just that I didn’t care. Cliches are cliches for a reason; they can be quite satisfying! The movie entertained me. But I guess when your job is to see all the movies, you need more from them to give them a good review. Fair enough.

But some other critiques? Deserve their own critique.

1. That the depiction of Freddie Mercury was disrespectful and inaccurate

The Globe and Mail review has that complaint, as does this Uproxx one. Interesting to me that these critics are so confident they know the essence of who Freddie Mercury was better than the people who actually knew and loved him, and who contributed to the film.

Yes, the movie depicts Freddie as, at one point, living a drug- and sex-fueled lifestyle while the rest of the band are settled with their wives and children. And this is a simplification—Roger’s marriages were rather turbulent, Brian fell in love with an actress he ultimately left his wife for, John used to drink vodka on stage, which doesn’t seem a good sign. But it’s a fact that the band was worried about Freddie’s behavior at this time, and that it did cause tension between them.

Overall, Malek plays Freddie as an essentially decent human being, one who struggled with loneliness, and who had a confidence in his talent that led to moments of arrogance. I’m OK with that depiction, and it squares with some of the stories I’ve read about him. I don’t get why it’s making some people so angry.

2. The movie skipped / condensed / reordered / simplified / added event x, y, or z

That it surely did, since otherwise the movie would have to be literally 15 years long. And admittedly, I had the advantage of knowing what was left out or added in, and just filling that in or correcting it mentally. And especially interesting are the bits they just assumed everyone knew and therefore didn’t bother depicting, like how enormously successful “Bohemian Rhapsody” (the song) was.

But OK, you can argue they didn’t make the best choices in how they selected or simplified events.

One common complaint was that it made Queen’s rise to fame look quick and easy, when in fact it was more of a struggle. That could have been interesting to show. But it probably wouldn’t have been as fun. Did you really want to see Freddie just hanging around with Smile for months, making suggestions, until Tim Staffell finally left? Or that one cute scene of him auditioning for Brian and Roger in the parking lot? Would it really be that interesting to watch the entire process of building a song like “We Will Rock You”? Versus just seeing it just go “whoosh” from studio stomping to stadium singalong?

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Then there are the things missing entirely: “How about his childhood in Zanzibar?” “What about all the drama with their first manager?” I could add my own: “What about Brian May contracting hepatitis and kiboshing their first US tour?” “What about Barbara Valentine, the other woman Freddie had a love affair with, in Munich? Wouldn’t that have added an interesting complication in this story?”

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The first cut of this movie was about 3 hours—maybe some of that is in there. If they ever release an extended version on DVD, that would be great. But I don’t think a theatre rock bio should be that long. And I’m not sure what I would drop from this version to add some of those other bits—though I would have scripted Freddie’s party scene differently. The band-mate fight they invented for the movie made them all look like asses; I think the other three getting alarmed at Freddie’s behavior and discussing that amongst themselves would have worked better. But some songs being out of order, the invented breakup… I can accept for the sake of drama.

Certainly the most controversial change was Freddie telling the band about his AIDS diagnosis shortly before the Live Aid concert. But in reality, that happened two years later. Some said that was unnecessarily manipulative.

But I don’t think it would have felt right if they had omitted AIDS from the movie entirely, to keep it in their selected time span. And, it’s an amazing scene in the film.

3. The movie isn’t gay enough

Likely fueled by Sasha Baron Cohen’s comments when he was dropped as the lead, has been the concern that Freddie would be “straight-washed”. Literally, before they even started filming, I read a whole ranty blog post rant by someone who was positive that would be the case. And then when the first trailer came out, and it showed Freddie with Mary Austin but not so much with dudes, same complaints.

But the movie very clearly (though not explicitly) covers the fact that Freddie had sex with men. Lots of men. And if it risks showing his being gay as a tragedy in his life (though that wasn’t, in fact, the easiest time to be gay), it certainly mitigates that by including the start of his loving relationship with Jim Hutton.

I’m too heterosexual to comment on whether the esthetic of this film is gay enough, but nobody’s going to come out of it thinking that Freddie was straight.

Conclusion

Freddie Mercury was a fascinating man. You could approach his life story from a lot of angles. I hope there are other movies, in the future, that have a different take, that focus on different parts of his life.

But for a first go, I’m satisfied. You might be, too.

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