Dear Bohemian Rhapsody, when will there be an art movie about art?
In the country I live in, going to the movies is pretty polarized. You can either go to a ‘mainstream’ movie or an ‘art movie’. If it’s not Marvel or Spielberg, chances are it’s art. If it won any sort of award and looks halfway interesting instead of just entertaining, it’s likely labelled ‘art movie’ and you’re going to have to watch it in the separate cinema uptown with the fifty-something women in pashminas.
Rare indeed is the art movie that makes it into the mainstream cinemas, but Bohemian Rhapsody was one. The only one in age was Amelie about a hundred years ago. I was excited – not just an art movie in my local cinema, but one that’s actually about art. As an author and the daughter of a musician, I find other people’s creative process endlessly fascinating. I had high hopes.
They were dashed.
Disclaimer – I thought there were many great things about the film. I could see the validity in the huge problems critics like Roger Egbert had with some fairly Victorian Polyanna moralising on Mercury’s private life, but my word, Rami Malek alone is worth the price of the ticket. Anyone who even half-enjoys watching someone act well is not going to feel cheated by his pitch-perfect imitation of Mercury’s gestures, the exact moves he performs at the somewhat ironically named Live Aid concert and his iconic strut. It brings to mind Natalie Portman’s rendition of Jackie Kennedy in its exactness. If that man doesn’t get an Oscar I’ll…. Well, actually I won’t be that surprised, Hollywood being Hollywood and all.
Also, the very clever decision to mostly stick to using the Queen mostly as is (even though the line is that Mercury’s voice was ‘an amalgamation’ of his and Malek’s - Malek was definitely supporting cast and the soundtrack uses Queen’s stuff as is mostly) means that any Queen lovers will happily get their money’s worth. The movie cleverly nails almost every one of the biggest big hits, with the notable exception of A Kind of Magic and arguably Tie Your Mother Down. Malek even reportedly went through extensive vocal training to make sure his throat and mouth moved convincingly like Freddie’s while singing. This was a detail I appreciated – I sing, I’ve sung live at gigs, and it grates me when actors lip sync vapidly on screen with their throat as motionless as if they were asleep.
It was definitely a movie the average Joe in the street seemed to love even if critics hated it. It was packaged in the way most palatable ‘mainstream’ biographies are with a clear moral, beginning and end and a character arc for the likable but not too-perfect protagonist. Am I against this? Not at all. There’s a place for ‘I’m Not There’ artsy biopics and there’s a place for the crowd-pleasers.
No, it was something else that depressed me – it was the art.
I had hoped that for once a movie would shed light on the creative process Queen and Mercury went through to get to where they are. All artists in various mediums and environments experience challenges, and it’s heartening to see how the greats dealt with similar issues. But although Queen went through several years’ hard work before getting any riches to speak of and faced many rejections, scathing criticism and a lot of pressure to be more commercially viable in their early days, you just don’t see it on film. Instead, irritatingly, all genius seems on tap, and to come spontaneously out of five seconds’ worth of any emotion. Freddie Mercury sits down at a piano, feeling sad, and five seconds later Love of my Life is born. Brian May watches the crowd interact with Mercury at a show and in a couple of days has the We Will Rock You iconic riff – which needs all of five seconds to get buy-in from the whole band – after which Mercury pertly replies that “now we just need lyrics”. The lyrics present themselves on screen two seconds later.
It’s a disheartening picture for any creative, and also a wildly inaccurate one. It doesn’t take into account Mercury’s endless revisions, some even culminating in re-releases of the same song improved, and his frustration with his inability to, in his words “do what John Lennon did”. Also, the tensions and crippling anxiety that often goes with being an artist with integrity are not at all addressed. Stuffed shirt Jim Beech immediately takes to being called ‘Miami’ in the movie and mildly quips “fortune favors the bold” when the band threatens to dishonor their legal contract with their label. Said label immediately asked if Queen were signed with anyone when they saw the gents joyfully tossing a rubbish bin around in a rented recording studio while making their debut. Never once do any of the band members question their talents onscreen, or Queen’s direction or the prominence afforded another member – which definitely happened in real life.
All in all, it's is a demoralizing portrait for anyone artistically inclined who hasn’t experienced indulgent managers, perfectly sympathetic and supportive peers and creative works which take approximately five minutes to write. But hey, if you just like watching someone else do it, this movie is a blast. All of the thrills and none of the chills – perfect for the casual observer.