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Friday, February 8, 2019

Director Report Card: Bryan Singer (2018)

11. Bohemian Rhapsody

Early on in Film Thoughts' existence, I did a Director Report Card for Bryan Singer. This was not because I was especially a big fan of Singer but because I had already seen or owned most of his movies. I still like some of his movies. For quite a while, I've known about the accusation surrounding Singer. His infamous pool parties were an open secret for years. When they first surfaced, I had a policy of separating the art from the artists and not commenting on personal matters. Of course, it's apparent in 2019 how irresponsible it is to do this. The world at large recognizes this now as, after it's become perfectly clear how much of a serial abuser Singer is, the director of “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been pointedly excluded from the movie's award season victory lap.

Of course, you have to ask the question if “Bohemian Rhapsody” can even be considered a Bryan Singer movie. In addition to being a rotten human being, Singer is apparently also a deeply unprofessional director. It's also now well known that Singer feuded with Rami Malek all throughout the production of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Instead of working through disagreements and doing his job, Singer just straight-up stopped coming to set. (This is apparently not the first time Singer has done this either.) He was fired – which was also a nice way for the studio to distance themselves from Singer, since everyone knew the expose about his abuse was coming soon – and replaced by Dexter Fletcher, who finished the movie. Due to the arcane rules that dictate such things, Singer was still given final credit. I have no idea how much of the actual movie Singer worked on.

Nevertheless, I am committed to doing my job even if nobody pays me for this. So here's my review of Singer's take on Freddie Mercury's life. The film's prologue and epilogue take place around Queen's legendary 1985 Live Aid performance. In-between, we see how Freddie was born into a conservative Parsi family and how he came to join the band Smile. Under Mercury's direction, Smile becomes Queen. After self-funding a debut album, Queen gets the attention of record labels and become a wildly popular rock band. As Mercury and Queen ride a global wave of success, Freddie struggles with his own sexuality and his relationships with his band mates.

A few years back, Sacha Baron Cohen was determined to play Freddie Mercury. He ultimately left the project because the surviving members of Queen – who were happy to go on tour with that “American Idol” dude, as if Freddie Mercury was replaceable or something – rejected his take on things. It was suspected then that Cohen's approach to the material was gritty and realistic. “Bohemian Rhapsody” all but confirms this, as this is exactly the kind of middlebrow musician biopic that I thought was impossible to make after “Walk Hard.” There's the expected rise to the top, the interpersonal drama with the rest of the band. Mercury struggles with drugs and the rock star life style, eventually alienating his band mates and breaking up Queen. Naturally, he works through this and everyone comes back together for a magnificent reunion.

It's all horribly trite. The film rushes through Mercury and the band's early days. Smile becomes Queen before you know it. They go from playing small clubs, to cutting a record, to becoming a mega-selling band in the course of a few scenes. This is exactly the kind of typical, by-the-numbers biopic that does no justice to a figure as fiercely independent – a man who sang one of pop music's ultimate odes to nonconformity – and expressive as Mercury. You can even see this in the title. If a movie attempted to accurately capture Mercury's philosophy towards life, wouldn't “Don't Stop Me Now” or “I Want to Break Free” have been better titles? But, no, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the biggest hit, with the most name recognition, so that's what they went with.

While no biographical film can ever be expected to hew one hundred percent to the facts, “Bohemian Rhapsody” shows an especially flagrant disregard of the truth. The film makes no attempt to accurately portray when various Queen songs actually came out. “Killer Queen,” released on their third album, is depicted as being on the band's first album. “Fat Bottom Girls,” released in 1978, is depicted as being played in concert before “Bohemian Rhapsody,” released in 1975, was even recorded. Queen is depicted as breaking up when Mercury decides to pursue a solo career, which never happened. This same lack of care is taken with Mercury's personal life. Freddie is shown being diagnosed with AIDS before the Live Aid performance, when that wouldn't happen for another two years.

Really, the bungling of Mercury's AIDS diagnosis is just another sign of how “Bohemian Rhapsody” treats Freddie's LGBT status so poorly. The movie slut-shames Freddie Mercury, a man who never apologized for who he was and lived his life to the fullest, as outrageously as possible. Long-time boyfriend Paul Prentor is depicted as the movie's villain, who alienates him from the band, introduces him to drugs and wild sex, and stalls his career. Overall, the movie pays much more attention to Freddie's relationship with Mary Austin than his status as a gay man. His wild parties and times in leather clubs are shown as part of his downfall. Mercury essentially gets AIDS as punishment for betraying his band, his friends. Holy shit, are you fucking serious? I don't have to tell you how offensive this is, not mention a betrayal of what Mercury stood for.

Instead of really attempting to capture what made Mercury one of mainstream rock's most colorful, beloved, and delightful figures, “Bohemian Rhapsody” boils Freddie down to his most accessible and easily understood terms. There's a subplot running through the film about Freddie's relationship with his parents. Naturally, they don't approve of his decision to pursue rock stardom. Nor of his flamboyant life style, as in an awful shot of his dad disapprovingly looking at a tabloid reporting on Freddie's sex life. Before the film ends, Mercury reconnects with mom and dad. Just to make sure the audience knows how triumphant the ending is suppose to be, Singer recreates nearly the entire Live Aid performance, leading to a bloated finale. Why would you watch a recreation of that performance when the real thing is easily found?

But, you know, I guess it could've been worst. At least an actor of actual Middle Eastern descent was cast as Mercury. While the reviews have been largely mixed on “Bohemian Rhapsody” in general, most of the movie's detractors have praised Rami Malek's performance. Yeah, he's pretty good. Malek isn't exactly a spitting image of Mercury, even with the artificial teeth the movie gave him. Yet he excellently imitates Freddie's style of speech, his mannerisms. It's not just an imitation though, as Malek brings a special something behind his eyes to the part. Malek ultimately does a better job of capturing Mercury's love of life more than the movie around him.

Malek dominates the film to such a degree that there's almost nothing to say about its supporting cast. Lucy Boynton is pleasant enough as Mary Austin. Aaron McCusker as Jim Hutton, the boyfriend Mercury had the last several years of his life, is similarly amiable. Ultimately, both characters only come alive within Mercury's context. In scenes like when he calls Mary in the middle of the night or connects with Jim after a wild party. Both still prove more memorable than of the people playing the other members of Queen, all of whom give totally serviceable and utterly forgettable performances. Gwilym Lee at least looks excellent with Brian May's notorious mane of curls.

Is there anything else to like about “Bohemian Rhapsody” besides Malek? Well, it's a slick looking movie. The montages depicting the band's various stage performances swirl around the band, swinging back and forth between various venues, the names flashing on-screen as we go. One clever bit has the initially negative reviews for the titular song appearing on-screen before it becomes accepted as a masterpiece of operatic pop. There's a cool shot where the camera pans directly inside a tour bus. Once or twice, an energetic split-screen is engineered. It's good to know that Singer or Dexter Fletcher or whoever is responsible actually did attempt to capture the energy of Queen's live shows.

And, you know, I did laugh once or twice. The recording of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” occupies its own montage, showing the band members nearly passing out while recording the high-pitched choruses. The movie accurately depicts Mercury's life as a cat lover, including his habit of insisting his cats listen to him on the phone. Even moments like this that I enjoy are undermined by groan-worthy scenes. Giving Mike Myers a small role as a record executive is gimmicky, sure, but not immediately awful. Yet the film can't stop there and has to have Myers deliver a line about teens head-banging to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in their cars. Jesus, did the people who made this movie really think we were that stupid? Must every in-joke and moment of importance be rapped against our skulls so viciously?

Not that actual audiences seem to mind much. “Bohemian Rhapsody” has become an enormous hit, grossing over 800 million dollars at the box office. That makes it the highest grossing biopic ever made. We've already seen signs that this'll open the floodgates for a number of other musician biopics. (Dexter Fletcher already has his next one, “Rocketman,” in the can.) I guess that's why the Academy felt the need to acknowledge the film so much, even with the controversy surrounding Singer. Even if the movie is actually very lame, if not outright offensive. Or maybe the Academy really does love shit like this, I don't know. Either way, I hope it doesn't win anything. Freddie deserved better. [Grade: D+]

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