BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY Review: Does This Song Sound Familiar to Anyone?
You may have heard of something known as the Four Chords of Pop. The progression of chords of I–V–vi–IV has been the mainstay of popular music songwriting for well over 50 years now. Just about any band, regardless of skill or talent or creativity, can write a radio-friendly mainstream hit with this magical formula - and they have. The chords are so ubiquitous, we now even have musical comedy sketches making fun of songs that use them. Of course, the four chords are not inherently bad, as the repetition and catchiness of the progression is often effective in catching an audience’s attention. They are merely a shortcut, needing the lyrics to do more of the heavy lifting to provide meaning and merit.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a four chord song, of sorts. The film boils down the life and story of the rock band Queen and, particularly, its iconic lead singer Freddie Mercury into the music biopic formula so well-trod by the likes of Walk the Line and The Doors, among others. As soon as the film begins with the half-hearted framing device of the 1985 Live Aid concert, the trajectory of the story is laid out before the audience as clear as day. The conservative upbringing, band formation, great success, the split, the debauched fall from grace, and the redemption - all notes are represented as expected with no deviations from the music sheet.
Films like this are meant to communicate what made their subjects special. The problem here is that Queen was a band whose music and style defied formula at every turn. The film’s namesake song famously bucked convention; the record exec depicted in the film refuses to even release it, because who would listen to a six-minute song with an extended operatic section and no chorus. That anarchic, experimental spirit is nowhere in the film. Anthony McCarten’s script takes no such risks, rearranging events and trimming more interesting details in order to better fit the needs of a three act structure.
Perhaps audiences will be satisfied in hearing the songs they love and seeing Freddie Mercury, here played by Rami Malek, lovingly depicted on screen. The film certainly seems to think they will. Malek’s performance is not bad, and he makes his studiousness of Mercury’s particular mannerisms and attitude obvious. It is merely the latest in the mimicry style of performance that prizes accuracy over drama and depth. He certainly looks, sounds, and acts like the man, but the sense of who he really was isn’t there.
The editing leans heavily on those legendary music cues, dropping one in about every ten minutes when the filmmakers realize the audience is about to notice they’re not seeing anything new. To be fair, Bohemian Rhapsody comes most alive when addressing the music, particularly when depicting the band’s creative process. Pouring beer and quarters over drums swinging speakers across the recording space, these details render the joy of artistry infections. Unfortunately, the scenes are usually partnered with a concert scene, which Bryan Singer’s direction (when he actually showed up to set) renders stagey and perfunctory. The grand scale of the music and of Mercury’s electric stage presence doesn’t connect with the way the camera captures them.
The major exception is the Live Aid concert that serves as the film’s climax. For once, the energy is there, and the entire sequence feels large and impactful. It’s the first concert that actually let’s us see the band perform in full, allowing the music and the performances to have their effect. Finally, the drama of the story is allowed to inform what’s happening onstage - and on the screen - and give subtext to the performances. The camera swoops and moves with an energy that mirrors the songs and Mercury’s ecstatic stage presence, as well as putting us in the crowd to watch and get the sense of connection the most ardent fans felt while watching. It’s an incredible setpiece, both joyous and depressing for what it says about how the rest of the film could’ve been made.
Live Aid is a wise note on which to end; most audiences will leave the theater associating the rest with the high delivered by that sequence. A better movie would’ve given us more of that, and a figure like Freddie Mercury is deserving of one. He lived a fascinating life and created incredible art, neither of which are served well by the Cliff’s Notes of a life story that Bohemian Rhapsody is depicts at such a breakneck pace. The narrative is the surface of a story with no depth and no invention, and despite an overlong 135 minutes carries both an excess of energy and a sluggish crawl. Rarely has a film felt in such a rush to just get itself over with.
Bohemian Rhapsody is currently playing in theaters everywhere.