Bohemian Rhapsody fails miserably at being an accurate portrayal of the life and times of one of the greatest acts in music history, but absolutely succeeds as a thrilling and heartfelt celebration of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The film is one of those projects that feel like cursed. The idea of a Queen biopic had been brewing at least since 2010, with development plagued with serious delays, serious shifts of personnel, and a fair amount of controversy.
And now after its release, although it’s having a stint of commercial success during its first weekend, the reception has been quite divisive.
Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, slated to play Freddie Mercury at the start of the project, famously bailed out in 2013 citing creative differences with Queen band members Brian May and Robert Taylor.
Since leaving the film he has stated in interviews he thought the movie’s intention was to “sugar coat” the real story, shying away from the band’s darkest episodes.
And after watching the film one does have to partially agree. Aside from the slightly cringe-worthy introduction of a couple of hamfisted lines, in Bohemian Rhapsody real events are moved around, compressed, or reimagined completely for dramatic effect.
Among other things, the film distorts entirely the real circumstances behind the band’s inception, it creates the fictional EMI record executive Ray Foster, and falsely depicts the Live Aid concert in 1985 as a Queen reunion, when in truth the band was a very well-oiled machine at that point, just coming out a massive world tour in support of their album The Works.
The extent at which film can be a medium able to capture the truth has been put into question by creators, philosophers, and academics since the very invention of cinema. To many, the sole decision of where to put the camera is a political act, a statement from the author that dissorts all sense of reality.
In that sense, not even the most faithful of documentaries are ‘real’. The director chooses what portion of reality to frame, and then events are given a certain pace and order in the editing room. That summed to other elements like music, cinematography, and sound design inevitably present a stylised version of what is real, anditss reliability is up to interpretation.
Following this train of thought, to judge the entire merit of Bohemian Rhapsody based on its historical accuracy is unfair. Because at the end, no film is an absolute depiction of truth.
The movie certainly fails as an historical document, but succeeds at being an amazingly acted, well-constructed epic about a group of friends that went from driving around in a battered van to become one of the greatest best-selling music acts of all time. It works as an cinematic extravaganza, one of those films that merit the IMAX screening format.
The film is constructed around some of Queen’s greatest hits, and uses the songs as plot points to advance the story. The development of the characters of Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor is sacrificed in favor of exploring Freddie Mercury’s extravagant-bigger-than-life persona, delving into his personal insecurities and the acceptance of his sexuality. It takes the band’s real story and fits it into the template of the classic hero’s journey we’ve seen time and again from Star Wars to The Dark Knight Rises. Joseph Campbell would certainly be proud.
The whole film builds up to a seminal moment in Queen’s career when the band stole the show in Live Aid at Wembley in 85, and that 15-minute sequence alone is worth the ticket.
You know the expression, frisson ? – French for ‘shiver’ – that overwhelming feeling of awe and emotion that moves your very core while you experience something extraordinary? Well, this film delivers exactly that. I teared up a bit at the end, and so did many people in the packed screening I attended.
Bohemian Rhapsody is not a thorough exploration of Queen’s career and a detailed rendition of the band’s lurid excesses. The film, just as the band’s music, it’s an outright, flamboyant celebration of life itself.. And just because of that, you should stop everything you’re doing and watch it like, right now.