Film Discussion

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) – Music in the Movies

Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics. 

When Bohemian Rhapsody premiered in 2018, it felt like the culmination of something that many might have been inclined to believe would never happen. A film centred on the lives of the iconic rock band Queen had been stuck in the pits of development hell for years, passing through directors, with many potential casting choices for Freddie Mercury mooted.

Most famously, Sasha Baron Cohen came the closest to playing Mercury, but creative differences with the surviving bandmates put paid to that. When the eventual film made its way to cinema screens, it still did so with a modicum of controversy regarding its behind the scenes issues and the firing of its director during production.

You wouldn’t have been able to tell any of this from the final product. While there were some criticisms levelled at it (some of which are justified), Bohemian Rhapsody grossed over $900 million at the worldwide box office, turned Rami Malek into a movie star, and even scored award nominations, earning Malek himself the coveted Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as Mercury.

READ MORE: Wild Rose (2018) – Music in the Movies

While the film is credited to Bryan Singer, the final stages of production and the final cut had the guiding hand of Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher to help finish it when Singer was fired by 20th Century Fox during production due to clashes with the cast and unexplained absences from set. Where Rocketman (as we’ll see soon) was filled with grandiose flourishes, Bohemian Rhapsody feels very much like a nuts and bolts entry into the musical biopic genre.

Tellingly, the story of Queen was made with a more audience-friendly PG-13/12A rating in mind so as not to offend families and kids, whereas Rocketman pretty much was unafraid to aim for an R/15 audience in terms of content. That’s not to say that Rhapsody is a bad film, far from it in fact, but there are underlying issues dotted around it.

Photo Credit: Alex Bailey – © TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

It plays things very safe to a point, and also some of its criticisms are valid; the film doesn’t shy away from Mercury’s sexuality, but to watch it you might be forgiven for thinking that Freddie Mercury simply gets HIV from walking through a gay nightclub. While Fletcher was hired to finish the film (it’s somewhat unclear how much he contributed), it does lack the more overt flourishes that made the Elton John story just a striking one in comparison.

The higher rating allowed the Elton John film to deal quite heavily with his sexuality and history of substance abuse, culminating in a stunning moment similar to the nightclub scene here but done in an almost more overt and artistically erotic way, somewhat comparable with the works of Derek Jarmon or Ken Russell. Everything here is almost delivered in a safely conservative manner. It doesn’t shy away from Mercury’s sexuality, but one gets the sense that everyone involved here is keeping an eye on making something for a mass audience and hoping against hope not to offend the more conservative viewers.

Mercury’s relationship and long term friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) becomes something of the film’s central love story, and while this might rub some people up the wrong way because it’s devoting a large part of Mercury’s personal life to a relationship/friendship with a woman, Mercury’s very own words indicated that she was a big part of his all too short life.

Photo Credit: Alex Bailey – © TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

It’s easy to complain and criticise things here. However, if, like me, a large part of your youth involved listening to Queen via LPs and tapes that family members owned and whose music you came to fall in love with by listening constantly to the album A Kind of Magic or the first volume of their Greatest Hits collection, or thought that now-iconic moment in Wayne’s World (which is referenced via the film’s most shrewdly and delivered in-joke/piece of casting), then the film will prove somewhat resistant to criticism.

In terms of the musical biopic genre, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before; the creation of hit songs, the way in which famous life moments are encountered, all of that is here, and yet it’s hard not to get swept along by it even if you can’t help but wish the film took more chances and swung for the fences more. Yet, it is massively enjoyable, the soundtrack is superb (the 20th Century Fox logo music is performed by Brian May himself) and the casting of everyone is perfect and it builds to one of the most electrifying conclusions.

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Yes, the film cheats a little in giving us something approaching a happy ending even after Mercury’s HIV diagnosis (which the film’s timeline restructures a little in comparison to real-life), and yet the recreation of the band’s iconic performance at Live Aid is pure movie brilliance, a stunning recreation of the moment the band came back in full force to remind everyone of just how brilliant they were and have remained to be.

Next to The Beatles, Queen has the most electrifying discography in British music, stunning work on the soundtracks for Flash Gordon and Highlander, and the film, for all its issues and inability to ignore cliche and tropes, can’t help but get you swept along with it. It’s perhaps not a surprise that it ranks among the highest-grossing films of all time. Some might scoff, but it does what it sets out to do incredibly well and will have you running not only to its own soundtrack album but to the entire Queen back catalogue.

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