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Caught in a landslide of real life and fantasy

15 November 2018

By William Elvin Manzano*

Much like Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s controversy-laden life and stardom, 20th Century Fox’s Bohemian Rhapsody,  a much-hyped film intended to be a biopic of Mercury and the rest of Queen, was wrapped in intrigue and production chaos from the get-go. On top of a revolving door of directors supposed to be at the helm of the film’s process, reports revealed that the role of Freddie Mercury was to be played originally by actor Sacha Baron Cohen – famous for merciless satires such as Borat, Bruno, The Dictator and the TV show Who Is America? – who quit the film after creative differences with Brian May and Roger Taylor, the surviving members of Queen. During production, director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) was fired by the studio for bad behavior on the set, and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle).

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury is flawless.
And, much like Freddie Mercury’s relentless spirit, the film not only survived but also soared to great heights, becoming one of the biggest global box office triumphs this year. In terms of mass appeal and marketability, the finished and released theatrical version of Bohemian Rhapsody was undoubtedly a success, its great weight singlehandedly carried by Rami Malek’s flawless performance as Mercury. Artistically, it is an ironically ultra-safe and sanitized portrayal of one of the most unconventional rock bands in pop music history, who were never afraid to experiment and break barriers both in their music and their lifestyle.

The movie makes it apparent early on that it is not intended to be an accurate, biographical piece, but rather a fictionalized and romanticized take on Queen’s illustrious music career. Using the band’s highly regarded Live Aid performance at the Wembley Stadium in 1985 as a narrative frame, the movie opens with Freddie Mercury letting out a few coughs, indicating the AIDS-related pneumonia that would take his life in 1991. (Fact: Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, much later than is suggested in the film)

What followed in the next two hours were almost disjointed, tensionless vignettes that always seemed to rush to the next, only picked up and made a whole lot better by Malek’s outstanding presence and Queen’s ever-present music. The film’s biggest flaw is its flat, bland and lifeless screenplay by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), which made the people around Mercury seem like one-dimensional cardboard characters, especially the cinematic versions of guitarist Brian May (played by Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello). The supporting characters only served to advance the plot, delivering cheesy and contrived-sounding lines, without adding any layer and nuance to the scenes.

The movie’s wonderful revelation is how the tragedy of Freddie Mercury, even with the most basic and unchallenging portrayal, never fails to capture hearts and minds. This is the story of a passionate man, a musical genius who did everything to erase his real history to create a larger-than-life, uncanny persona that shocked the world and made us feel uncomfortable, but at the same time forcing us all to fall in love with him. In the end, the life of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll he fully embraced and celebrated became his ultimate undoing, and knowing that it happened to a brilliant, fascinating man turns the narrative into both a cautionary tale and a heartbreaking parable.

Despite all its flaws, the film most importantly succeeds in introducing Queen’s magnificent music to a wider audience and a younger generation. At the end of the day, if Bohemian Rhapsody is inspiring the next batch of young musicians to pick up their instruments and aspire to reach the level of Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor’s creativity, then it is significantly contributing something beautiful and hopeful to the world.

Rating: B- 

*William Elvin Manzano is a singer-songwriter and theater artist whose bread and butter is his job as a copywriter in a PR agency. He used to work with The SUN.

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