AT THE MOVIES
The Music Is the Message in “Bohemian Rhapsody”
By Noah Gittell
In 1980, the spoof “Airplane!” came out, and the air-disaster movie was soon extinct. In 1989, the same team released “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad,” and the humorous rogue cop movie lost its relevance. Spoof movies kill genres, but despite the 2007 release of “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” which satirized the musician biopic, movies like “Bohemian Rhapsody” continue to be made. The new Freddie Mercury biopic is guided by little more than its adherence to formula, but it is sustained by its music, and there is nothing more alluring than the promise of seeing Queen’s buoyant live performances re-enacted. It’s a formula that works.
The film takes us from Queen’s early days in the clubs of England to their iconic set at Live Aid in 1985. Mercury’s (Rami Malek) childhood is sketched hastily. He’s the only son of Pakistani parents who believe in Zoroastrianism, but the film depicts his experience so broadly that it could apply to any immigrant. His parents want him to study. He wants to rock. He joins the band that would become Queen after they lose their lead singer, quickly falls in love with a fan, and he quickly takes them all straight to the top.
From there comes a predictable fall from grace, centered on Mercury’s egotism and drug use. The press swoops like vultures onto Mercury and his private life, ignoring the music in favor of salacious details. Under such pressure, Mercury starts acting out, and his bandmates (Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello), about whom we learn almost nothing, get fed up, forcing Mercury to leave the group and take a lucrative solo deal. It’s a betrayal of royal proportions.
While so much of the plot sounds tired and contrived, the best way to appreciate “Bohemian Rhapsody” is to view it as an expressionistic portrayal of Mercury’s theatrical nature. Consider Mercury’s buck teeth (the singer actually had four extra incisors), which are even more pronounced in the film than they were in real life. Or the fact that Malek is clearly lip-syncing to Mercury’s voice (because no actor on this planet who could do it justice). Then there’s the record executive played by Mike Myers who tells the group that the title song will never be a hit because teenagers want something “they can play in their car and bang their heads to.” Myers, of course, made headbanging to “Rhapsody” iconic in “Wayne’s World.”
These grotesque elements tell us to consider “Bohemian Rhapsody” not as a work of drama but as camp, the kind that Mercury’s outlandish performances often bordered on. Viewed through this lens, the film’s strict adherence to the musician biopic formula comes across as knowing self-parody or even postmodern expression, and while it mutes the film’s emotional impact, it succeeds in making it a rollicking good time.
The musical performances are staged with verve, and Malek’s brazen physicality captures Mercury’s exuberance onstage. Unfortunately, there is a long stretch in the second half in which there are no performances at all. Mercury’s arrogance and isolation is unpleasant to watch. If the film had laid the proper groundwork in for his character, this section could have been appropriately heartbreaking.
It’s worth it. The last twenty minutes of the film are a near beat-by-beat recreation of the band’s performance at Live Aid, which doubled as their final moment of glory before AIDS forced Mercury to retire from show business. As Mercury struts his stuff upon the stage, the camera finds his bandmates, friends, and family all gazing at him in wonderment, enraptured by his performance. So are we. In the end, the film finally casts off the burden of its importance and simply revels in a once-in-a-lifetime performer’s natural talent. It’s not a bad formula for success.
My Rating: See it in the Theater