Bohemian Rhapsody paints a family-friendly portrait of Queen
In 2002, We Will Rock You opened in London’s West End. The show was a jukebox musical (a la Mamma Mia), set in an authoritarian future, with the songs of Queen ultimately smashing down the barriers of conventionality and restoring for the people the freedom to rock out as much as they wanted. It got dreadful reviews, with one critic suggesting that Ben Elton, who crafted the storyline and wrote the dialogue, should be shot for writing something so “risible.”
The show went on to run for 12 years.
It was yet another instance of Queen proving to be critic-proof. From the very beginning, brickbats were hurled at the band; in 1973, UK music weekly New Musical Express denounced Queen’s self-titled debut album as “A bucket of stale urine” (Queen was never destined to be friends with the Fourth Estate). But the more the critics railed against them, the tighter Queen fans clutched the group to their collective bosom. Robert Christgau, of the Village Voice, denounced Queen devotees as “losers” in his critique of 1977’s News of the World; it became one of the band’s bestselling albums in this country.
I see a similar scenario playing out in the wake of the release of the new Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. Critical panning balanced by audience kudos. In the comments thread of a negative review you’ll inevitably find something akin to these responses to a two-star review in the Guardian: “[reviewer] Simran Hans must have been to a different film to me because I walked away from the film deeply moved, I laughed, I cried, I bopped about in my head and was hooked from the beginning to the end” and “It’s well worth a watch as it’s very touching and funny and if you don’t get at least a lump in your throat you may not be a human being at all!” Through it all, Queen fans remain devotedly loyal.
It’s worth considering the role We Will Rock You has played in setting the template for how the surviving members of Queen (and lead singer Freddie Mercury’s estate) have handled the band’s legacy. In the end, the musical is simply a feel-good story that’s meant to get you stomping along to Queen’s songs and standing at the end to sing “We Are the Champions.” The band’s tours after Mercury’s death have been the same; original guitarist and drummer Brian May and Roger Taylor (original bassist John Deacon has elected to not be involved) have lassoed singers Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert into the Mercury role, for the sheer pleasure of “making a racket in a big, loud rock band,” as Taylor told Classic Rock, and pleasing their fans, who are happy to see some of the original group still treading the boards, playing the hits.
So I took it for granted that Bohemian Rhapsody would take a similar tack; offering a surface look at the subject, hitting all those feed-good buttons, and ending on an upbeat note. And so it does. Even by the standards of a typical bio-pic, much of it (especially the film’s first half) is superficial. Once Mercury joins the band, there are no obstacles in the group’s rise to superstardom; there are knowing winks in reference to future events (a record exec predicts the band will be forgotten by the end of the ’70s); and everyone irritatingly speaks in pithy soundbites and quips.
Then there are the usual liberties taken with the actual story. That’s also to be expected, to a degree; a subject’s narrative is necessarily streamlined to fit into the 90-to-120 minutes format (though I’ve never understood quite why films have to vary so much from a real-life narrative, which is nearly always more interesting than what’s ultimately depicted in the movie). Some scenes are wildly implausible, such as the moment when Mercury hesitatingly comes out to his family. After introducing his male companion as “my friend,” Mercury’s father, who’s been hostile to him throughout the movie, promptly goes into all-is-forgiven mode and hugs his son — after which Mercury hops in a car and heads off to perform his legendary set at Live Aid. Um, what?
It’s definitely a lost opportunity; Queen’s story is far more compelling than what’s presented here. And certainly the depiction of Mercury’s sexuality avoids any examining any complexities. This was a man who teasingly told journalists “I’m gay as a daffodil, dear!” while still introducing his longtime, live-in partner as “my gardener,” a conflict that would have been interesting to explore. But Bohemian Rhapsody chooses to play it safe, giving the most screen time to Mercury’s relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin, then initially equating his gay life as a rootless existence of non-stop partying, before he sensibly chooses a nice, drug free gay man to settle down with.
There is a — perhaps unintentional — nod to Mercury’s celebration of hedonism in the film’s closing credits, via a clip of the real Queen performing “Don’t Stop Me Now,” with Mercury singing of making a “supersonic” lover out of both a man and a woman, while wearing a t-shirt from New York City’s notorious gay club the Mineshaft. But by and large, Bohemian Rhapsody opts for the people-pleasing side of the street, all the better to lure in the masses with; as John Houlihan, Senior Vice President of Fox Music (the movie’s a 20th Century Fox film) quite frankly told Daily Mail TV, “Essentially, it’s a family film. Queen is family music.”
A film you can take the kiddies to, then–like a Disney movie (and indeed, Queen’s U.S. label is the Disney Music Group’s Hollywood Records). Knowing how heavily the surviving members of Queen (May and Taylor in particular) were involved with the film, that’s largely what I expected. Yet I also enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody more than I thought I would (that’s the advantage of having lowered expectations). For all its glibness, it was fun looking back at Queen’s ’70s-era in particular; all those spangled leotards!
And the movie cannily puts the star sequence at the end. Live Aid is the film’s framing device; the movie opens on the day of the show, with Mercury waking up at home (and, ominously, coughing). By the film’s end, after being teased with brief moments of the band in concert throughout, you’re more than ready for the payoff, when most of Queen’s Live Aid set (which ran for 21 minutes) is recreated. You finally get to see an entire song. And it’s here we’re brought back to what made Queen great, their music and their showmanship, with Rami Malek (as Mercury) going out all out, turning in a captivating performance. And with numerous shots from the band’s point of view, panning across the enormous, cheering crowd, you get a real sense of how extraordinary the moment was for them.
At the theater where I saw the movie, the audience burst into applause afterwards, just like we were at a real concert. I left with a smile on my face. And then I went home and watched the real thing on DVD.