THE TEASE OF BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Bohemian Rhapsody had a very rocky path to the big screen. From director Bryan Singer’s exit, casting Freddie Mercury, and taking 20 years to get the film made, the film proved to be a huge hurdle and one that it never quite makes it over. Bohemian Rhapsody is confused about what it wants to be and the story that it wants (and should) tell.

(Spoilers ahead for Bohemian Rhapsody)

Joseph Mazzello, Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, and Ben Hardy in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Joseph Mazzello, Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, and Ben Hardy in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

The Distance of Queen

When I first sat down to watch Bohemian Rhapsody, I actually didn’t know a lot about the making of the film or even Queen’s beginning as a band. I knew Queen’s hits of course (e.g., “We Will Rock You,” “We Are The Champions,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and of course the track that lends the film it’s name, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”).

Going into my viewing, I was intrigued to learn more about Queen’s start, their troubles and accomplishments, more about frontman Mercury, and their ascension to be one of the best bands in the world. I believe the film has good intentions and it does accomplish some narrative elements, but it always keeps us on the surface and never lets us dive deep into the film’s narrative.

One thing that I was reminded of while watching this film is the “aesthetic distance” of this film. “Aesthetic distance” is the gap between a viewer’s conscious reality and the fictional reality. When a film exhibits “closer” or “low” aesthetic distance, then it is remarked as “good.” For example, a horror film wants to exhibit low aesthetic distance because it aims to make you feel that you are in the story of the film and so close to the action on the screen (e.g., possibly being chased by a man wielding a knife).

For me, Bohemian Rhapsody had the intention of exhibiting low aesthetic distance and wanted us to dive into the world of Mercury and Queen and become emotionally attached to the narrative, but I believe it failed in some key areas. For example, throughout two thirds of the film when the film goes though the creation of some of Queen’s biggest hits, I really wanted the film to lean in a little more and explore the process of creating those songs. When we get the band coming up with the feet stomp for “We Will Rock You,” we see one of the band members begin to stomp their feet and Mercury is watching and then joins in and they develop the vocals to go over the stomping. Then we cut to them performing the song at a venue in front of an electric crowd and that’s all we get. I guess I wanted to see more of the process and the behind the scenes of creating these songs.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Credit: Alex Bailey

A Star is Born (2018), another Oscar contender this past season, exhibits a low aesthetic distance where it really lets you get close to the film’s narrative and be with those characters. You are there with Ally as she meets Jackson for the first time, them singing together, his problems with alcohol, and her ascension to celebrity. You are cut off from your own reality and there with Jackson and Ally. In Bohemian Rhapsody, I always felt we were getting close to Queen and Mercury but then it shut us out.

In my opinion, showing more of Queen’s behind the scenes would have lent the film a low aesthetic distance and let us connect with the film’s narrative and characters more. We see more of the “behind the scenes” feel when the band and it’s management visit Ray Foster (played by the wonderful Mike Myers) to discuss the new album which included “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and maybe that’s why this film shares the track’s title. Cara Buckley at The New York Times article tells us,

The script was written by one prestigious writer, (Peter Morgan, “The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”), rewritten by another (Anthony McCarten, “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour”) and laboriously revamped. “This is why it took so long to bring the movie to life,” said Graham King, one of the film’s producers.

Perhaps this is why we never get the chance to dive fully into Bohemian Rhapsody, and are instead teased at every turn. Watching the film, I kept wanting to turn the corner and see the band perfecting each hit, rehearsal after rehearsal for a hit, their rise to one of the best bands in the world, and possibly the effect that had on each band member’s life, but we instead focus more on Mercury’s life. Even when we view Mercury’s life, we are still left with questions and have to infer what is going on.

Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Confusion about Mercury

Another aspect that hindered the film from allowing us in completely was the film’s caricature of Freddie Mercury. This definitely has nothing to do with Rami Malek’s portrayal of Mercury. Malek’s Mercury is wonderful and his dedication to getting Mercury correct is there on screen. Malek spent over a year with a dialect tutor and a movement coach to get Mercury’s mannerisms and movements down to the T and it shows. Malek also won an Oscar for his efforts so he definitely did something right.

Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and Rami Malek as Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and Rami Malek as Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Cara Buckley (NYT) mentions how some people were worried that Mercury’s queerness might be “straight-washed.” Malek responded, “It’s nothing we don’t address…that’s another thing our film is good about. I don’t think it’s exploitative or salacious.”

Jude Dry (IndieWire) argues, “By erasing his bisexuality, the movie reinforces a heteronormative view of queerness, and says it through a straight mouthpiece.” I have to agree with Dry on this topic. Not knowing a lot about Mercury’s background and his life before and during Queen, if it’s going to be an authorized biopic of Mercury then the portrayal of Mercury has to be accurate. I am not so concerned with Malek raising his hand the same way that Freddie did, but more so concerned with the fact that all of these script rewrites and the Ray Foster’s of Hollywood may have not wanted to tell the TRUE story of Mercury’s sexuality. Dry goes on to say,

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is an authorized biopic gone incredibly wrong. The movie doesn’t understand Mercury’s sexuality because May and Taylor don’t understand it, either. “Bohemian Rhapsody” crushes the life of a dynamic, free-thinking, explosive talent into easily digestible, hackneyed Hollywood stereotypes.

As I stated before, Bohemian Rhapsody had a troubled beginning to get to its 2018 premiere. I would imagine the conversation about the making of the film Bohemian Rhapsody is similar to what we see the band and it’s management go through in discussing releasing the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” with label executive Ray Foster. Ray didn’t understand the song and what it was about, the song was too long and radio stations wouldn’t pick it up, and he also believed it would not be a song that teenagers would catch onto. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) even tells Ray, “It ruins the mystery if everything is explained.” Ray responds, “Seldom ruins sales.”

You could look at the film Bohemian Rhapsody in the same way that the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” was discussed in being the band’s single. If everything was more explained, would it “ruin the mystery” of the film. What ruined mystery is yet to be determined but perhaps it would. Contrary to Ray’s point though, it did not ruin sales for Bohemian Rhapsody at all. As of 3/11/2019, total worldwide gross for Bohemian Rhapsody is over $875 million with a budget of $52 million, so not too shabby.

Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018).
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018).

I also wonder if part of the problem with the film’s portrayal of Freddie was due to the fact that he was not around to discuss his life and what was happening during some of the band’s highs and lows. Brian May and Roger Taylor are the only members that are still with us today. Of course they lent their experience and knowledge of being in Freddie’s presence to the screenwriters, but I would argue (just as Dry did above), that possibly May and Taylor didn’t understand Freddie’s sexuality either. It’s no coincidence that Bohemian Rhapsody is also rated PG-13. If it had leaned more into Mercury’s life, it may have not been widely viewed by a majority of audiences. A heavier rating could have possibly hurt it’s Oscar chances too. Bohemian Rhapsody racked up 5 Oscar nominations including Best Picture.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) Academy Awards- Winners and Nominations. Credit: IMDB

Although more than half of the film does have some shaky moments, the ending is very emotional. The films ends with a recreation of Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985, and it truly is a coaster of emotions (at least for me). I give the director and editor props for their recreation of Queen’s set, and how they edited this scene to really drive home everything we sat through. The comparisons are uncanny of course in Malik’s Mercury, but even to the beer and soda cans on the piano. Check out the video below that shows the comparison between Queen’s Live Aid performance and the recreated performance in the film.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) Academy Awards- Winners and Nominations. Credit: IMDB

Although more than half of the film does have some shaky moments, the ending is very emotional. The films ends with a recreation of Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985, and it truly is a coaster of emotions (at least for me). I give the director and editor props for their recreation of Queen’s set, and how they edited this scene to really drive home everything we sat through. The comparisons are uncanny of course in Malik’s Mercury, but even to the beer and soda cans on the piano. Check out the video below that shows the comparison between Queen’s Live Aid performance and the recreated performance in the film.

Compared to Rocket Man, the new film coming out about Elton John’s breakthrough years, Elton is still alive so he can lend his knowledge of his own life to the story and correct elements that are inaccurate to his life. (It’s also worth noting that Dexter Fletcher is directing Rocket Man, he finished Bohemian Rhapsody once Bryan Singer exited the film). I believe if Freddie was still with us, Bohemian Rhapsody would be a very different film and would be closer to Mercury’s real life and closer to Queen.

Bohemian Rhapsody is now out on DVD.

Let me know your thoughts below or tweet me (@colbyg1991). I would love to hear your thoughts on this film.

Read Zack’s article on A Star Is Born and listen to our fourth podcast episode on A Star Is Born.