Film Review: “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Pure Pleasure
The film captures everything I love about Queen — the outrageousness, the audacity, the bigness of it all.
Bohemian Rhapsody directed Bryan Singer. by Screening at AMC Assembly Row, Somerville Theatre, and Apple Cinemas Cambridge.
By Adam Ellsworth
There’s a quote from Queen guitarist Brian May that I’ve always found incredibly moving.
I’m not sure when he said it, but it’s from a piece of interview included near the end of the 1995 documentary Queen: Champions of the World. If I had to guess, I’d say the interview took place in either the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, meaning it would have been at least a few years after the classic lineup of Queen had already played its last note together onstage.
A lot of our biggest success has been stuff which brings people together,” the quote begins. “It’s related to that feeling you get at football matches I think. But, the difference is that in a rock concert, everybody’s on the same side, which is rather nice.
May delivers the quote in his typical unassuming way, so much so that when I watch and rewatch the clip, what he’s saying doesn’t really register with me. It’s only when I think about the sentiment of his words on my own that I’m often brought to tears.
So many of Queen’s greatest triumphs took place in venues built to pit two sides against each other. London’s Wembley Stadium, the spiritual home of English football, played host to the band’s absolute peak: their 20-minute set at Live Aid in 1985. I’m sure somewhere on this planet there exists a person who doesn’t consider this to be the single greatest performance in the history of rock and roll. If you find this person, have pity on him. He obviously has no joy in his life.
Queen’s Live Aid performance and the build up to it frames Bohemian Rhapsody, the new biopic about the band and its iconic frontman Freddie Mercury directed by Bryan Singer. The film’s closing minutes are in fact a near frame-by-frame recreation of the majority of the group’s set, which should be a waste (after all, why not just watch the real thing on YouTube?), but is instead thrilling. This is partially thanks to the pure pleasure that comes from watching leading man Rami Malek, as Mercury, manage to actually pull the whole thing off, but mostly for the one way in which the film breaks from historical recreation to focus on the reaction of the band’s audience.
It’s obvious from Live Aid footage that Mercury and Queen had all of Wembley in the palms of their hands, but we never really see the audience up close. In the film, we’re provided an approximation of what it must have been like to be there in the crowd on that day. We see the delight on people’s faces as they perform the synchronized clap during “Radio Ga Ga,” and the joy as they respond to Freddie’s call of “Ay oh!” with an “Ay oh!” of their own. Corny as it may sound, we see what it looks like when 72,000 people are all on the same side. Sitting in a darkened theater late last week, watching this unfold onscreen, it was May’s quote that ran through my mind. I found it even more moving than usual.
I clearly had a very emotional reaction to Bohemian Rhapsody. The film captures everything I love about Queen — the outrageousness, the audacity, the bigness of it all. The soundtrack isn’t bad either.
I am aware that the film has faults, but I’m have trouble getting too worked up about them. For example, much of the movie seems like an attempt to get as many Queen factoids into the narrative as possible, chronology be damned. Not that making chronological or other historical tweaks in a biopic is a bad thing — this isn’t supposed to be a documentary after all — but I can admit that the film is at its best when it lingers on a few key moments in the band’s story, such as the Live Aid build up and performance, or the writing, recording, and reception of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“How many more ‘Galileos’ do you want?!”). I feel like there’s an alternate version of this film that focuses on just these moments and a few others like them, and ignores or only briefly touches on the rest. If this means something gets left out, well, that’s what documentaries and biographies are for.
And yet, if the film was all neat and tidy it wouldn’t be Queen. “Less is more” is not a phrase that has ever crossed any member of the band’s mind, so why should the film be any different? Besides, I liked finding all the Easter eggs hidden in the film, and explaining to my very patient wife afterwards which parts really happened, which parts sort of happened, and which parts were totally made up.
Maybe this shows a lack in critical judgement, but I feel that even if the film’s imperfections become less charming to me as the years go by, I’m still going to care more about what the film gets right than what it gets wrong.
This is especially true of Malek’s portrayal of Mercury. My greatest fear going into Bohemian Rhapsody was that we’d only see “over-the-top” Freddie. Of course that’s there in the film, because that’s part of who Freddie was. What’s also present though is the shy, insecure, and sensitive Farrokh Bulsara that lay underneath (you didn’t think his name was actually Freddie Mercury did you?). In one scene, superstar Freddie is late to the studio. Again. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) feels Mercury has kept the band waiting long enough, so he teaches them the stomp-stomp-clap of his just written “We Will Rock You” without the singer. When Freddie finally arrives, the rest of the group are hardly glad to see him. He walks over to Brian anyway to see what’s he’s missed, but first takes a moment for a quiet apology. “I’m sorry I’m late, Brian,” he says. It’s not a dramatic apology made for everyone to hear, or a sorry-not-sorry to show he doesn’t need to answer to anybody else. He’s just genuinely sorry and he wants his friend to know it. It’s a small moment, but Malek uses it to show a side of Freddie that was often overshadowed by the myth.
As I write this piece, Bohemian Rhapsody’s opening weekend has come and gone, and yet the film seems to be more in the headlines than it was before it opened. Despite pretty mixed reviews (and some downright hostile ones), the film has defied box office expectations in the U.S. There are more and more stories hitting the internet about all the things the film “got wrong.”
There are accusations that the film straightwashes Mercury. The conversation about the film doesn’t appear to be dying down. I’m looking forward to at least one more viewing in the theater, and then countless re-viewings over the years at home. Will I find the film’s shortcomings less charming the more I see them? With more time and thought, will I be convinced that the film in fact does straightwash Freddie (currently I disagree, but I’m open to being swayed)? Right now, I’m just thankful for what the movie has given me. To anyone who agrees with me, it’s a pleasure to be on the same side.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.