Soundtrack soars, story struggles in “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Boom boom CLAP. Boom boom CLAP. Boom boom CLAP. It’s a familiar sound at any western Wyoming high school football game. The crowd shakes the stands and warms their hands before joining the pep band to the refrain of Queen’s anthem, “We Will Rock You.”

Par the course, the song made an appearance in the new biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” titled after the band’s famous rock opera of the same name. The film follows

Queen frontman and lead singer Freddie Mercury on his journey to stardom, from baggage handler at Heathrow to renowned rock star on the international stage.

Born Farrokh Bulsara to emigrants of British India, Mercury’s interest in music began in boarding school. After graduating with an art degree in England, he joined a series of bands and in 1970 met guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor. The trio formed the band Queen. Later joined by bass guitarist John Deacon, they released several albums influenced by progressive rock and heavy metal throughout the 1970s and by the early ‘80s they had ventured into more radio-friendly arena rock and pop rock, becoming an internationally known stadium rock band.

The performance career of the original group reached its zenith at Live Aid in 1985, a benefit concert occurring simultaneously at stadiums around the world, where they joined the likes of David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Madonna. Queen’s last live performance with Mercury was a year later. He died in 1991 of complications from AIDS.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” brings us into Mercury’s life shorty before he meets May and Taylor in an alley after a gig and traces the arc of his rags-to-riches rise to fame. After producing its first album, the band is signed to a producer and sets off on a series of increasingly large-scale tours, recreated with actor Rami Malek lip synching convincingly to Mercury’s original recordings. We have a front-row seat as Mercury changes his look and his name as he adopts the flamboyant stage persona that now lives on in mythic proportions in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Fame isn’t everything, however, a cliche the film embraces a bit too eagerly. Cracks appear between band mates and in Mercury’s personal relationships, culminating in Mercury apparently leaving the band to pursue a doomed solo career. He also breaks from his fiance Mary Austin after (possibly, maybe) having an affair with a man while on tour. His darkest night finds him friendless and musically uninspired.

Though emotionally realistic, the problem with this downfall is how it villainizes both Mercury and his sexuality. The film asks us to believe Mercury was the only band member who showed up late to rehearsal, squabbled over song credits and royalties and filled his free time with partying in excess. The painful scene where Mercury and Austin fumble over “bisexual” and “gay” presents his sexuality as the nail in the coffin of his defective personality, the final proof of his sinfully hedonistic lifestyle.

The film nearly redeems itself with its portrayal of Mercury’s illness and eventual AIDS diagnosis. In the heartbreaking scene where Mercury reveals the diagnosis to his once-estranged band mates, he makes it clear he doesn’t want to be anyone’s AIDS poster child or a cautionary tale. He just wants to make music with the time he has left.

The film avoids completely romanticizing his illness by ending on the high note of the 1985 Live Aid concert, though it does portray Mercury’s performance as a triumph over vocal chords weakened by the AIDS virus when in fact it was a case of laryngitis. He reportedly wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until 1987. The artistic license in this case is justified in the interest of wrapping up the story and focusing on Mercury’s music rather than his death.

Biopics run risks when they compress a lifetime into a couple hours. If you paint someone’s life in broad brushstrokes, you inevitably miss the human complexity. For “Bohemian Rhapsody,” missing this complexity indicates that risk didn’t completely pay off. The film perpetuates and even distorts the mythos around the rock star rather than dispelling it. For some Queen fans, that’s ok. (That, and seeing what is nearly a two-hour music video of Queen’s greatest hits.) Other fans will be left wanting more.

 

 

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