Bohemian Rhapsody

Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aiden Gillan, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Anthony McCarten


There’s a scene in the middle of Bohemian Rhapsody where the four members of Queen are pitching their latest album to a big-time music producer. They’ve all agreed that the lead single must be their poetic, operatic six-minute song entitled ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but this big record label cheese isn’t going for it. It’s “not possible”, he says. The radio stations won’t play anything over three minutes. The song has too many weird words and sounds in it. This isn’t the kind of song that teenagers can bang their heads to at top volume in the car. It’ll never work! He entreats them to stick to the rock anthem formula that’s already worked for them, but Queen isn’t interested in formulas. They want to push boundaries, defy labels, and make music nobody has ever heard before. The buffoonish bigwig (played by famed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ headbanger Mike Myers no less) refuses to budge and, as the bandmates storm out, he obnoxiously declares “Mark these words, no one will play Queen”.

While the scene itself is entirely fictional (the Ray Foster character that Myers plays was invented for the film), to dwell on that is to miss the point. This is a dramatization of a true story and liberties have to be taken. The purpose of this scene is to emphasise Queen’s nonconformity and artistic integrity. They will not allow themselves to be constrained by the rules, formulas and standards set by musically illiterate hacks and moneygrubbing executives. They’re in it for the music and they want to offer the audience something new, dynamic and unique. It’s an admirable mission statement made by an innovative band fronted by one of the greatest, most ingenious singers who ever lived. It’s why I wish Bohemian Rhapsody had even one tenth of the originality, fearlessness and spirit of its main character and the music he and the rest of Queen created. For a movie that so eagerly champions the notion of subverting expectations, breaking all the rules, and challenging the norm, Bohemian Rhapsody is so painfully generic, formulaic and predictable. If you’ve seen the parodic take that Walk Hard offered on films of this exact kind, its derivativeness becomes almost laughable.

It pains me to write this because I had high expectations for this film, not least because Queen was probably the greatest sing-along band of my childhood (the only other two that come close are The Beatles and ABBA). Yet it sticks to the weathered musical biopic template so rigidly that you half expect the movie’s version of Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek) to lose his sense of sight, suffer a childhood trauma that haunts him throughout his career, or go through a meltdown that involves breaking a nearby sink. The prescribed beats are all there; we meet a young, naïve singer with enormous, untapped talent who finds success and fame despite the scepticism of his disapproving family and then rises to superstardom before losing themselves in a cesspit of sex and drugs. In the end the singer hits rock bottom but is then inspired to seek and find redemption in the form of a triumphant comeback. None of this is done in service of telling a specific story with something meaningful to say about the singer and the life he lived; the emphasis is on hitting as many major life moments as they can while cramming in as many songs as possible. What you get is thus a Wikipedia article with a soundtrack. It tells you the who, what, when and wheres of Freddie’s life, but you won’t learn anything about him.

The reason for this is that Bohemian Rhapsody has little, if any, interest in the humanity behind the story. The movie instead concerns itself with minor details of little consequence such as which band member wrote which song, as if the real Brian May and Roger Taylor (played by Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy respectively) feel that their roles in the story won’t be fully appreciated unless it’s made clear to the audience that it wasn’t Freddie who wrote ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. While this movie does at least delve more into the musician’s creative process than other biopics tend to do, it still comes at the expense of any introspective explorations of character. Take Freddie Mercury’s ethnicity as an example. Freddie was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar to Parsi parents, yet part of the reason this did not prove to be a barrier in his pursuit of rock and roll stardom is because he could pass for white. This angle has the makings of a potentially fascinating and culturally relevant story. Was Freddie’s ethnicity one of the reasons he felt like an outcast growing up and was it partly what inspired him to make music for other outcasts? Did passing for white stir up complicated feelings about his family, culture and identity? Does Rami Malek, an American actor of Egyptian descent, identify with these feelings on some level? Any viewer hoping that Bohemian Rhapsody will address these questions on any meaningful level will be left disappointed.

Another side of Freddie’s character that the movie at least attempts to address on a thoughtful level is his sexual orientation and the result is… problematic. I don’t think this is because the film’s PG-13 rating necessitated a less explicit exploration of his sex life, in fact a part of me likes the idea of a mainstream Hollywood movie in which an LGBT icon is celebrated as a legend being readily accessible to teenagers and children. The problem is that the film’s depiction of his sexuality is so backwards it feels like it could have been made in the 90s. For one thing the movie doesn’t allow Freddie to express his sexuality on his own terms. When he comes out as bisexual to his fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), which is exactly what he declared himself to be in real life, she replies “Freddie, you’re gay”. Having an LGBT man’s sexuality dictated to him by a heterosexual woman is one thing, but then the movie proceeds to portray his homosexuality as an actively destructive force in his life even after he embraces it. His most prominent relationship with another man is shared with the band’s manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), the most unambiguously villainous character in the film. It is he who gets the blame for Freddie’s debauchery as he supplies him with booze, drugs and groupies. He also manipulates Freddie into leaving Queen in order to pursue a career as a soloist because the film is loath to give its lead any significant amount of autonomy.

That the film had a messy production did it no favours. Even after losing their original attached star, Bohemian Rhapsody went on to lose its director Bryan Singer, who remains credited in the final film, amid a scandal in which he was accused of being a sexual predator. The movie feels embarrassingly chopped together in its finished form and contains several scenes edited within an inch of their lives with no direction other than to give every member of Queen an equal amount of screen time. Even then, however, there may not have been very much that stand-in director Dexter Fletcher could have done to save the film with what he had been left by Singer to work with. Even putting aside his reprehensible actions, Singer is probably the blandest director they could have chosen out of all the openly gay directors working in Hollywood. There is little that is distinctive in the way Bohemian Rhapsody is shot, except for the actual ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ sequence which recreates the image of the band shrouded in darkness from the music video while passages from the original negative reviews of the song flash on-screen as it grows into a phenomenon, and many of the scenes feel so generic in their inclusion (including a scene that’s helpfully captioned “Midwest USA”) that it feels like they were doing a colour-by-numbers biopic from the start. I can only dream what somebody like Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Lee Daniels, Jodie Foster or Ryan Murphy might have done with Freddie Mercury’s story.

Still, Bohemian Rhapsody is not without its good points. Its best quality by a mile and a half is Rami Malek’s performance as the champion himself. In the years since his death Freddie Mercury has evolved to become more myth than man and that is a difficult persona for any actor to imitate, never mind embody. What Malek does is far more than mere lip-syncing and dancing on a stage; he captures this electrifying, larger-than-life essence with a wicked air of flamboyance and a swaggering stance and walk that make you believe he could have been one of the great, demonstrative, hypersexual stars of glam rock along with David Bowie, Elton John and Prince. That Malek manages all of this while still channelling the deeper humanity beneath it all shows what an inspired casting choice he was and hints at the Freddie Mercury biopic that could have been. You get a sense of the man who was living this self-made persona even before he had an audience to perform for and who shows himself capable of both tremendous arrogance and narcissism and heartfelt affection and sincerity. It is a truly extraordinary performance deserving of an extraordinary film.

The movie is usually at its most sensational and superficial during the musical performances and nowhere is this more evident than the 1985 Live Aid sequence where Freddie reforms with Queen and delivers a knockout concert for the ages as if his life depended on it (which, the way the movie tells it, it kind of did). If there’s one thing that Bohemian Rhapsody gets absolutely right apart from Malek, it’s that a stunning, breathtaking finale can make an audience feel like the whole effort was worth it. Even if it rings hollow to those who happen to know that Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, which the movie uses as the justification for bringing Queen back together (even though they never actually broke up) for the concert, actually happened two years later, it’s still hard not to be completely swept away by Malek’s magnetic presence, the pulsating energy, and the sheer awesomeness of Queen’s music. That doesn’t make it any less superficial though. It’s a glorious moment for Freddie, but it isn’t a humanising one. Bohemian Rhapsody is nothing more than a greatest hits compilation that doesn’t even have a story to tell, never mind a statement of actual substance. What we got instead is a two star biopic entirely unworthy of the man it depicts or the music he created (and, truth be told, that second star is mostly for Malek).

★★

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Oliva Munn, Lucas Till

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Simon Kinberg


As much as I’ve enjoyed some of the movies in the X-Men franchise (First Class being my personal favourite), I don’t think the film series has been realised as fully as it could be. When watching the cartoon and reading the comics what appealed to me about the X-Men was how they worked as a collective. The best parts were always when they’d charge into a situation together as a team and would then display their diverse powers, working with and off each other. So far there hasn’t really been a movie where we’ve had the X-Men charge together into a skirmish and then just had them be the X-Men. In ­X-Men the team is pretty much just there to back up Wolverine. In X2 the characters are separated and a couple of them get knocked out. Days of Future Past was a lot of fun because we actually got to see some of the minor characters like Quicksilver, Iceman and Colossus show off their powers in new and creative ways. Therefore, with Apocalypse bringing back some familiar characters from the earlier films, it was my hope that this might be the ­X-Men movie that I’d been waiting for.

Taking place 10 years after Days of Future Past (in a universe where every mutant presumably possesses the Wolverine gene that stops them from aging) Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is now the headmaster of a flourishing academy for young mutants. His newest student Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) arrives to learn how to control his heat vision and there meets the telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) meanwhile is working covertly to save mutants but refuses to become the heroic symbol that the young mutants proclaim her to be. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has gone into hiding in Poland where he lives with his wife and daughter. His peaceful and contented life is tragically destroyed, leading him to seek vengeance once again. He finds his chance for revenge in Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient and powerful mutant who has recently woken up after centuries of hibernation. He recruits Magneto as one of his four horsemen in his mission to scourge the Earth of the plague that is humanity.

The biggest problem with X-Men: Apocalypse is simple: it’s more of the same. We learn about Magneto’s tragic backstory again. Professor X gets kidnapped again. The X-Men travel to Alkali Lake again. On top of that we have a generic bad guy with an apocalyptic plan backed by a vague motivation, some forced fan service and a failure to use some of these characters the way they should be used. While watching the climatic battle I found myself comparing it to the airport scene in Captain America: Civil War. Those characters all had their reasons for being there that the film took the time to establish and the scene actually had some fun with their differing abilities, playing them with and against each other. Here the film sort of pushes its characters into the climatic setting and then has them use their powers in the most straightforward, routine way possible. There are some great moments in there like the Quicksilver scene and the Wolverine cameo (which isn’t the spoiler that it should be thanks to the trailer) but even they are little more than recreations of scenes we’ve already watched.

McAvoy and Fassbender continue to be excellent in their roles as Professor X and Magneto, more so than the film deserves. When Erik’s peaceful family life is inevitably taken away from him, it’s a predictable and derivative moment that we can see coming from a hundred miles away, but damned if Fassbender doesn’t sell it. Jennifer Lawrence however doesn’t bring half the life into her role that she did in First Class. Here she gives exactly the kind of performance that Hollywood stars give when they are only in the movie to fulfil their contractual obligations. Some of the new(ish) mutants that are brought into the trilogy like Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler do well enough with what they are given but others like Storm and Angel are barely given enough to justify their presence in the story. Oscar Isaac meanwhile is completely wasted as Apocalypse, one of the blandest and least memorable villains that the films have come up with.

Apocalypse isn’t exactly a bad movie, especially not when compared to The Last Stand and Wolverine. It’s just generic and formulaic. It brings very little to the table that we haven’t seen before in the previous movies. Anyone who is familiar with the comics or the cartoon knows that there is a treasure trove of potential in this concept and these characters, but it is almost entirely wasted here. Perhaps this movie was following the example of Star Wars: The Force Awakens where more of the same meant a return to basics but did so without either the inspiration or the imagination that made it a success. I do hope that, at the very least, the groundwork this film has laid for future sequels will lead to greater things, especially now that some of the original characters have returned to the universe, but the film itself doesn’t stand on its own. Although it has the same characters that we’ve enjoyed watching in the previous films, this time they’re trapped in a movie that doesn’t know what to do with them.

★★