Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
The iconic opening words to one of the most famous songs in history pose a question that is also at the core of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the film.
No such philosophical quandaries are pertinent in the film itself, but the question persists when analyzing the content of the film in a much more literal sense. As with any biographical film, creative liberties are taken with the content. This is done in order to best convey potentially many years of history as a singular, complete story.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” presents a very loose interpretation of the actual history of Queen and their larger-than-life frontman. Does this approach enhance the story while staying true to the essence of the reality? Or is the film just a watered-down version of a much richer story?
The Real Life?
If you’re not very familiar with the history of Queen and Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody” should not be the place you start. This has nothing to do with the quality of the film on its own, but when adapting such a well known entity as Queen, it’s hard not to notice the many changes they made to the band’s history.
On one hand, taking advantage of creative freedom has no real bearing on the inherent quality of the film as its own entity, but on the other, as the titular song even says, there’s “no escape from reality.” A film should be subject to scrutiny based solely on its merits as a piece of art. However, if learning more about the subject leads to frustration with the art, then the annoyance is by its own hands, and the art is at fault.
The curious thing about the liberties the film takes is not so much what was changed but rather what was done instead. The film makes many choices that are far less interesting than how events played out in real life and many that fall into unnecessary clichés that make the film feel thin and conventional.
All that being said, “Bohemian Rhapsody” truly does feel like a fantasy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film jumps around so much time, especially in the first half, that Queen's rise to prominence feels almost unnaturally effortless. It’s like a greatest hits medley, moving from one great beat to the next. And you sing along, never stopping to remember the words because you know them all by heart.
When the film does slow down, it's the result of dastardly villains and scoundrels trying to manipulate the band into dissolution. The film paints Queen as these pseudo-heroes of the people and as a band of misfits who came together as a family, and through sheer force of will, this mostly rings true.
The film gives you triumphant heroes to love, devious villains to hate, and loads of great, familiar music set to exciting and dynamic performance sequences. In essence, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a crowd-pleaser by design and execution. A fictionalized retelling made to appeal to the widest amount of people.
Thunderbolt and Lightning
Aside from the music and general energy, the movie has one major thing going for it: Rami Malek.
Malek has been one of those “on the rise” talents for several years now. He got a big boost from his Emmy-winning performance on “Mr. Robot,” but this is where he will and should get the attention he deserves.
Malek has a unique look, and while he doesn’t really look much of anything like Freddie Mercury himself, he does embody the role so very convincingly that I was momentarily taken aback when they showed footage of the real Freddie Mercury in the closing credits of the film.
While the movie is certainly about Queen as a band, it definitely revolves primarily around Mercury. Through Malek’s performance, we truly get a seemingly full picture of who Mercury was and a decent outline of his life and relationships. Unfortunately, the film isn’t as committed to the role as Malek. It does feel like an outside look at his life from an admirer, rather than an introspective, personal journey on which we as an audience are taken along.
The movie gives the rest of the band their fair due, and the sequences involving them working on and creating their most iconic works are entertaining and full of fun moments—even if they do come with a bit too much schmaltz for me to believe that it’s anything more than a rose-tinted version of the past, dictated by the remaining members of the band.
Nothing Really Matters
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a fantasy version of the real life story. It’s CliffsNotes storytelling with worse accuracy than a Wikipedia page that only ends up working thanks to the shameless way it leans into the band’s iconic tunes and an electric lead performance.
At the end of the day, I find myself thinking of this movie very similarly to last year's breakout hit, “The Greatest Showman.” I could complain about so many things, such as the over-produced, more-fiction-than-fact, watered-down pile of sugar storytelling. But the glamorous musical extravaganzas paired with a charismatic lead performance still manage to win me over despite my better judgement.
It’s a film that left me frustrated, yet wanting more. Whether you love the movie or hate it, you’ll probably leave the theater smiling and maybe even with a tear in your eye. The film is far too conventional for a band as innovative and original as Queen, but it’s still an emotionally satisfying send-up of the inspirational and conflicted artist at the film’s center.
Also, shout-out to Gwilym Lee for looking exactly like Brian May. Just terrific work, looking that way.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language.
Runtime: 2h 15min