Bohemian Rhapsody * 2018 * Rated PG-13 * 2 Hours 14 Minutes
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Freddie Mercury and Queen are musical legends. As with Elvis Presley and the Beatles, whether you love them or hate them, there’s no denying Queen’s talent, uniqueness and cultural impact. Bohemian Rhapsody, the film, chronicles their history, and especially Freddie Mercury’s history, with that legendary status in mind. Though he only lived to be 45, Mercury was such a larger than life, complex figure that no single film could do justice to his life and work.
This film, made under the guidance of the surviving members of the band, who still tour using the name Queen (as is their right), was created with the goal of preserving the public history and legacy of Queen and Freddie Mercury, and introducing them to new generations. In short, this film is meant to continue the legend. With that goal in mind, it succeeds.
It’s not a gritty, salacious tell-all including every scandalous thing the band ever did. It’s not a deep dive into how Queen created each of their greatest hits. It’s not a passionate depiction of the history of AIDS and how it affected the music industry. And it’s not out to make a definitive statement about Freddie’s sexuality while fighting for the rights of others like him. It’s the story of a group of talented musicians in a certain era of history, and how they coped with fame, fortune, their own inner demons, and societal expectations and prejudices. Ironically, the film is now also coping with the same societal expectations and prejudices.
What makes Bohemian Rhapsody special is the involvement of Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, and other long time members of the Queen camp. The film has immense affection and patience for its main character, but it also looks at him with the clear eyes of family members who lived with someone through all of their ups and downs. They know Freddie is the star, and don’t begrudge their frontman his place, but it’s obvious that he was a lot to deal with off stage as well as on.
I respect their decision to show restraint as far as how much of Freddie and the band’s sex and drug related exploits are included, and to leave Freddie and his loved ones some privacy. The sex and drug culture of the 60s-80s is well documented in other places. The rock star lifestyle, including bisexuality, was lived by many stars of the era, and has also been well documented. If you’re not aware of the stories, perhaps you need to dig deeper into the historical archives. Personally, I lived through the era, and none of it was secret or surprising at the time, if you were a music fan.
What was outrageous and amazing was their music and Freddie’s personal style. That’s what this film focuses on, along with his personal, family and romantic history. The rest of the band is there, and we learn a bit about them, but Freddie is the undisputed star.
Parts of this story are fictionalized, for dramatic effect or to streamline the story, as is usual in dramatic adaptations. I’ve put links at the bottom of the page that list the facts vs the movie’s alterations. As far as I’m concerned, this is the story of a legend, and legends aren’t strictly factual. If you asked every person who was involved in Queen’s history to tell their version of the story, their tales wouldn’t completely match, because memories are faulty and each person will adjust their own version to make themselves look better. The film had a lot of story to tell, and even with the changes, still came out at more than 2 hours. The changes they made are mostly reasonable.
By keeping the drama to a PG-13 rating, Bohemian Rhapsody remains a family film, open to the broad audience which enjoys the music. The film is filled with Queen’s music, and paced such that younger viewers don’t have to wait long before another anthem appears to hold their attention. It’s as much a celebration of Queen’s music as it is a biopic, which lightens the tone of what could otherwise be a film filled with tragedy, from Freddie’s failed engagement to Mary Austin to his diagnosis with AIDS.
The film roughly covers the time period from the formation of the band until their Live Aid performance in 1985, when, in the film, Freddie also reveals his AIDS diagnosis to the band and begins his relationship with longtime partner Jim Hutton. (The timing of his diagnosis and the beginning of his relationship with Hutton were two of the altered events.) Freddie’s relationship with his lifelong friend and former fiance Mary Austin is shown, and his realization that he’s also attracted to men, as well as his later relationships. His family life is depicted, and his struggle for his father’s approval. But the biggest focus is on the music, the band and his stardom, how the three were intertwined, and how he related to them. He needed all three, plus a personal life, and spent his life trying to find a workable balance.
The downside of the film is that sometimes it’s been cleaned up so much that the viewer isn’t sure what they’re trying to say, and a few of the changes from real life are just odd. We’re shown Freddie taking lingering looks at men and the bare suggestion that something might have happened, while he and Mary are shown in bed together, naked. Hutton is inexplicably switched from the hairdresser he was in real life to a catering waiter, so that he and Freddie can meet at the end of a party instead of the way they really did, at a gay bar. Why not just make the hairdresser a guest at the party? That would be reasonably similar to a gay bar and retain Hutton’s identity.
The best things about Bohemian Rhapsody are the music and the casting, especially Rami Malek, who deserves every award he’s won and will undoubtedly continue to win. He becomes Freddie Mercury during the concert sections of the film in ways that are absolutely freakish, from his physical stance to his attitude. There were many times that he brought me to tears, remembering what we lost. But he also nails the vulnerable, quiet moments of the film, which is no surprise to fans of Mr Robot.
I’m glad that the film ends with Queen’s Live Aid performance and Freddie’s AIDS diagnosis. After 2 hours and 15 minutes, it would have been too much to move from the height of the band’s popularity to watching Freddie waste away and die. It was hard enough to accept in reality. Let the film celebrate his life and work. Someday, another film can concentrate on the grittier aspects of his life and look more closely at his self-destructive tendencies. This film showed us they existed, and that was enough.
Bohemian Rhapsody works best as the story of a legendary frontman who can never be replaced and the band who decided to tell his story in a way that everyone can appreciate. Rami Malek gives an incredible, inspiring performance as Freddie Mercury in this introduction to their lives and music.
Bohemian Rhapsody was executive produced by Arnon Milchan, Denis O’Sullivan, Jane Rosenthal, Justin Haythe and Dexter Fletcher. The music was executive produced by Roger Taylor and Brian May. It was directed by Brian Singer (with an assist by Dexter Fletcher) and written by Anthony McCarten. The film stars Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin, Gwilym Lee as Brian May, Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor, Joe Mazzello as John Deacon, Aidan Gillen as John Reid, Allen Leech as Paul Prenter, Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, Mike Myers as Ray Foster, Aaron McCusker as Jim Hutton and Adam Lambert as Truck Stop Guy.
HistoryvsHollywood.com – Bohemian Rhapsody: Questioning the Story
Time.com – The True Story Behind Bohemian Rhapsody