1/10 The more I learn, the more I realize Bohemian Rhapsody is a vicious, intentionally revisionist insult to Freddie Mercury, the history of rock-and-roll, the very concept of film as an art form and the hundreds of thousands killed in AIDS crisis, but before it is any of that, it is a damn bad movie.
Bohemian Rhapsody is the completely fabricated true story of Queen, from the fictionalized formation of the band, around the mostly made-up tension over its signature song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” through its break-up that never really happened and up to its Live-Aid performance in 1985, which is still considered one of the single greatest rock performances by a band in any context. It centers around the band’s legendary frontman Freddie Mercury (Remi Malek), but completely erases everything that makes him an enduring icon and reduces his 1991 AIDS death to an afterthought.
Mercury had a pronounced overbite due to extra teeth in his mouth, and poor Remi Malek, they’ve given him these horrible dentures to recreate that jawline and he can’t speak through them at all. He sounds like he’s been forced to wear plastic Halloween vampire fangs the entire movie, and he looks like Nigel fucking Thornberry. One of his first lines is to explain all this, meaning that I spend the entire movie staring at his protruding upper lip, which was a terrible point of insecurity for the real Mercury.
Stories abound about Malek’s performance being the movie’s one redeeming factor, and they all seem like posturing propaganda pieces aimed at earning him an Oscar. He apparently took classes and looked through hours of footage so that he could speak intelligibly through the dentures – which again, he can’t do at all, he sounds ridiculous – and accurately recreate Mercury’s movements, but is Freddie Mercury really that hard to imitate? His movements onstage were so bombastic, I’d argue that simply following them correctly isn’t much of an accomplishment.
Malek’s singing was also dubbed over, obviously. I absolutely hate movies that sub their actors out for performers with more talent — if an actor isn’t physically capable of performing a role, cast someone who is — but in this case it’s hard to argue with the choice. Mercury is considered one of the most physically gifted singers in history, and finding a Hollywood-level actor who could emulate him is a bit much to ask. The singing is recreated by unreleased masters of Queen albums and someone called Marc Martel, a Christian Rock singer who’s known for having a similar voice to Mercury.
Bohemian Rhapsody may have hired someone specifically to get the music right, but it doesn’t use the music right. There’s a snippet of “Killer Queen” here and a few beats of “Under Pressure” there, but almost never do we get full songs, and they’re never ever incorporated into the story in a meaningful way. They’re not used to tell the story of the band, they’re not even played in full, they’re just more story beats for the movie to briskly drag us through.
Then, after two hours of withheld musical release, the movie stands still for 20 minutes while they recreate the Live-Aid concert in full, and now that we’re finally getting some full Queen songs, it’s somehow even worse. The full concert is recreated in painstaking detail, down to the empties on top of the piano, and shot from about four camera angles over the entire 20 minute period. It feels like I’m physically watching cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel run out of ideas.
It’s not like the actual concert is hard to find, either. Here’s the Youtube of it, and you’ll note that even the live broadcast doesn’t feel like it’s repeating shots-
Bohemian Rhapsody’s failure to shoot a rockshow interestingly, or even with a basic degree of competence, starts much earlier than its climax. It’s most noticeable in Queen’s tour “all across America,” which appears to only have one location, repeatedly cutting back and forth between what is clearly the same stage and what is clearly the same back alley where Mercury goes to have
buttsex extended eye contact with strangers after the show.
The failure to incorporate Queen’s actual music in any meaningful way is probably the key disappointment of Bohemian Rhapsody from an average viewer perspective. Everyone who saw it was probably well aware that critics weren’t keen on the movie, but they went anyway just to hear some Queen on the big speakers. This movie doesn’t provide any satisfying version of that.
Not only do you not get Queen music, you don’t get the true story of Queen. Not even remotely. The band’s break-up is made up, the producer who rejected A Night at the Opera (Mike Myers) was made up – yes, there was resistance to getting it on the radio, but the band stayed with EMI until 1989. The movie also portrays Mercury as being diagnosed with AIDS just before the Live Aid concert, when by all accounts he was diagnosed two years later in 1987.
These aren’t just bits of fluff that Bohemian Rhapsody fabricates, these are the core conflicts of the movie. Several of the best biopics ever made take extreme liberties with their subject matter, but they do it to tell a story that’s essentially true, and it’s very important to understand the difference. Take 2010’s Mark Zuckerberg biopic, The Social Network, as an example – Zuckerberg almost certainly wasn’t physically in two conference rooms per day recounting everything that happened, but the resultant facts of the story and the core surface-level conflicts between him and the other people claiming to have founded Facebook are all right on the money. The framing device is made up in the service of a story that is factually accurate.
A made-up framing device is more or less inherent – that’s what a movie is, it’s a made-up framing device for a story. And given the ability to spend an indefinite amount of time on each take until you get it right, the opportunity to get the lighting and the costumes just so and engineer all the sound and cut the shots together to create new meaning through montage, it’s got the potential to be the most evocative framing device in human history.
There are plenty of other things to point out about Bohemian Rhapsody to justify a low score – John Ottman’s completely manic editing, which has simple dialogue scenes cutting several times a second completely independent of sound cues, springs to mind – but it’s this refusal to even try to tap the potential of film as a medium and make a real story interesting is what moves the film from a missed opportunity to something that violates the entire concept of making a movie in the first place.
I would later learn that the twisted story presented in Bohemian Rhapsody is due not to incompetence, but malice. Bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor, played by Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy in the movie, own the rights to the band’s music, and hence had the power to completely can the movie if they wanted to – something they’d apparently been doing for almost 10 years. The plot changes, turning Mercury into a diva that they stoically put up with, turning his AIDS diagnosis into an obstacle they needed to overcome so they could perform their big Live Aid concert, apparently it was all to make them look good in a movie where they barely feature anyway.
Apparently the first drafts of the project back when Sacha Baron Cohen was attached to star – God, wouldn’t that have been amazing? – had Mercury’s 1991 death at the film’s midpoint as a setback for May and Taylor to overcome.
Going over the movie that Bohemian Rhapsody should have been, it’s hard not to think about how the AIDS crisis looms over Freddie Mercury’s life story. The film has been criticized for turning his bisexuality into sort of a dark phase. To be fair, the man died of AIDS-related pneumonia at age 45, mistakes were clearly made, but as Stephen Daw notes in his breakdown of the issue, the film does nothing to examine what AIDS was in the 1980s. It even goes so far as to portray the diagnosis as a punishment for being queer, a perception that helped spur the deliberate ignorance that fueled the epidemic.
Even in today’s culture, AIDS isn’t just another disease. Bohemian Rhapsody’s attempt to pass it off as one to avoid getting into the context surrounding Mercury’s untimely death may be the most important betrayal in a movie full of them.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.