Welcome to Cinematic Essence, where I critique both contemporary and classic films and discuss how they utilize narrative, mise-en-scène and other filmmaking elements to facilitate unique experiences. I avoid spoilers when discussing recent films.
On Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, twenty-seven years after the death of rock-and-roll legend Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit theaters. The Bryan Singer-helmed project stars Rami Malek in the role of the vibrant Mercury, alongside Lucy Boynton, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Joseph Mazzello, Aiden Gillen and Mike Myers. The film chronicles the history of Queen and focuses on the personal life of the band’s lead singer, Mercury.
In my experience, there are two effective ways to make these “life and legacy of an icon” movies. The first way is to dig deep into the historical figure’s life and depict it with crude realism. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” (2012) which portrays the nation’s 16th president as a determined old man and not as a robust all-American Jesus, is a perfect example of this method. The second way is to fully embrace the idea that the person represents — to indulgently romanticize a larger-than-life character. The 2017 animation film “Loving Vincent,” with its evocative hand-painted portrayal of Van Gogh, is this method’s epitome (I can’t wait for “At Eternity’s Gate”). Sadly, “Bohemian Rhapsody” falls somewhere between the two methods — and mostly falls flat.
This film is uncertain of what it wants to be. It tries to celebrate Mercury’s grandiose public persona and complicated private life, but also feels like a race to include every well-known Queen song, every noteworthy moment in the band’s history, every quirky anecdote about Queen that circulates rock-and-roll communities and every agent, producer and passerby involved with the band (all with dubious accuracy). “Bohemian Rhapsody” could have been a love letter to Mercury, a harrowing tale of the star’s final AIDS-stricken days, an activist film on sexuality or a simple, boisterous rock-and-roll extravaganza. But it is not truly any of those things. The film is mostly a tiresome chore with the occasional fun song or light-hearted joke.
Although the film depicts harshly over-simplified versions of real people, and although it generally fails to evoke any sense of realistic hardship (except in its latter parts), it is nonetheless beautifully hyper-stylized and bursting with a 1970s and 1980s rock-and-roll aesthetic. The costumes, sets and (obviously) the music merge to construct a particularly distinct and charming atmosphere. The make-up and prosthetics (Mercury’s teeth!) are similarly admirable and the band members look strikingly like their real-life counterparts.
The visuals, however, are not infallible. While title cards and similar effects are used inventively (though lack in consistency), much of the editing feels choppy. This choice was likely made to enable the inclusion of tons of events, characters and songs — especially in the film’s earlier parts. Editing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a way that imbues the movie with such a quick pace damages the effect of the music. As a Queen fan, I felt goosebumps emerging when songs began playing. Then, suddenly, the music would abruptly stop, and the narrative would swiftly move on. It is not until the climax that viewers get the chance to fully enjoy a musical performance — which is a pity because the concert and rehearsal scenes are the best that this film has to offer, along with Malek’s performance as Mercury.
The whole cast gives good performances, but Malek’s is more than exemplary; in a better film, I would call it career-defining. Malek’s charismatic, passionate depiction of Queen’s lead singer — of his life’s ups and downs — makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” rather watchable for those already invested.
If you are looking for an exceptional drama, I suggest that you avoid this film. If you are a Queen fan who is willing to sit through two hours and 15 minutes of a watered-down, somewhat serviceable portrayal of the band’s history, some dynamic musical scenes and a fantastic Freddie Mercury, then you may enjoy “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Allow me to remind you, however, that the 1985 Live Aid performance at Wembley is on YouTube — and that one is only 24 minutes long.
Christoforos Sassaris is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in computer science and creative writing. PS868710@wcupa.edu