Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Film Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

Is a partial redemption a triumph or a tragedy?

That is the question that I have been wrestling with since I left the theater after seeing the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  And make no mistake, this is not a Queen biopic so much as it is Mercury's story.  While they all play important parts in the story, they are never more than bit players in this haunting musical narrative.

The movie begins with Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) preparing for his reunion performance with his band mates at "Live Aid," a star-studded international concert meant to raise money for famine relief in Africa.  In this beginning sequence, we never get a full shot of Mercury, but we are given lavish detail of his life and surroundings.  He is surrounded by absolute opulence, but the wild herds of cats running through his empty home immediately set the main theme of loneliness we find in the rest of the film.

The story then flashes back to a young Freddie, still going by his birth name Farrokh Bulsara, is working as an airport baggage handler with big dreams.  He approaches a band he admires after their lead singer has quit.  The remaining members Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), decide to take a chance on the young singer after he shows them his incredible vocal range.  This, of course, turns out to be a great choice as the band begins to take off.  Along the way, Farrokh starts a relationship with the coed Mary (Lucy Boynton) and the band adds bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello).  Together, they rise through the ranks and get "discovered by agent John Reid (Aidan Gillen).  Reid's assistant Paul (Allen Leech), becomes more and more interwoven with the band's life, especially the no renamed Freddie Mercury.  What follows is an often told tale of the struggle for fame and success only to have that same fame and success tear our heroes apart.

There are a number of things that sets Bohemian Rhapsody apart from other stories of excessive celebrity.  The first thing is the screenplay by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan.  One of the problems that most movies based on real-life has is that there is often a struggle to organize the events of that life into a coherent narrative.  There is often the understandable fear of taking too much dramatic license with real people and events.  But the adjustments to the events and timeline for Bohemian Rhapsody serve to illuminate the subject rather than obscure him.  This is one of the most humanely crafted portrayals of loneliness I have seen in a movie.  This is especially the case when Mercury's homosexuality becomes prominent in his life.  The screenwriters show us how Mercury desperately wanted a typical heterosexual life and romance, but his orientation made this impossible.  He clings to Mary like a wife but they can never really give each other what they need.  And so Mercury, having this void in his life, tries to fill this emptiness with illicit pleasures which only drag him further into the pit.

Malek is amazing at showing us Mercury's journey.  He was smart enough not to do a full on impression of Mercury.  Instead, he creates a general affectation and then lives out the character's inner most struggles on the screen.  Like Mercury himself, Malek shows us the absolute thrill and confidence of a rock star while also showing us the wounded, broken heart underneath.  In the movie's best scene, Freddie has just finished throwing a lavish party.  One member of the waitstaff, (Aaron McCusker) is cleaning up while Mercury is at his piano.  Mercury playfully gropes the man, which is an act of an entitled and powerful celebrity.  The server turns to him and in no uncertain terms lets Mercury know that if he ever lays a hand on him again, Mercury will regret it.  What follows is Mercury completely shedding the rock star persona and shrinking into an apologetic little boy asking for forgiveness.  What Malek does here is show us that Mercury's over-the-top persona is his armor to shield the painfully lonely and shy boy who feels unloved and unaccepted.  The scene is such a wonderful marriage of script and acting that this scene alone should earn Oscar nominations for acting and screenplay.

Another huge advantage this film has is the entire library of Queen songs at its disposal.  It amazed me how, when placed in the right point in the narrative, how autobiographical the songs are to Mercury's life.  Everyone has their favorite songs, but the film knows when to use them.  At one the turning point of the third act, Mercury must make a sharp, life-changing decision.  And playing "Under Pressure" only helps elevate his choice.  When coming to the slow realization about his health, "Who Wants to Live Forever" gives just the right level of solemn sadness.  And the way the concert scenes are shot makes you feel like you are not only in the massive crowd but you are on the stage receiving their overwhelming admiration.  Director Bryan Singer was replaced by Dexter Fletcher, so I do not know who is responsible for this effect, but whoever it was, they have created one of the best concert movies I have seen.  The film builds to the final "Live Aid" concert.  The sequence goes on much longer than the end sequence of a film should.  But I kept hoping that it wouldn't be cut short and that the songs would keep going.  That is a testament not only to Queen's music but also to how much the filmmakers get you to invest in the characters.

The film does have its flaws.  As stated at the beginning, the other members of the band feel like glorified extras.  Their performances are fine, but they fade way into the background.  The movie also likes to make fun of anyone who does not right-away recognize Queen's musical genius.  Music producer Ray Foster (Mike Meyers) points out all the practical reasons why their album "A Night at the Opera" shouldn't work.  And he's not wrong about that, since there really hasn't been an album like it.  While he does lack vision, he is derided almost like a villain.

My biggest struggle with the film has to do with Mercury's journey.  As he loses his connection to Mary, he darkens his soul by illicit sex, drugs, alcohol, and materialism.  Visually, it actually begins to take on a feeling of descending into hell.  At his breaking point, Mercury learns that losing yourself to random sex and addictive chemicals is wrong.  In that sense, the movie does a good job of showing how this lifestyle is ultimately unappealing and wicked.

But he never completely climbs out.  In this way it was very similar to my problem with Joseph Gordon Leavitt's Don Jon, in which a character who is addicted to pornography learns to abandon that empty pleasure.  However in the main character in Don Jon replaces that sin with an illicit (but monogamous) sexual relationship.  The same thing can be seen in Bohemian Rhapsody's Mercury who abandons the excesses that once had him, but he still ends up in an illicit (but monogamous) sexual relationship.

So do we admire Mercury for making it out of his darkest sins into the light of partial truth?  Or do we pity him for never quite finding the fullness of redemption that is offered to all mankind?  I am certainly not his judge.  That was taken care of when Mercury stood before the Lord decades ago.  Whether this change of heart was enough for God, I will leave that up to Him.

In the end, I left feeling stirred in my heart for Mercury.  It wasn't that he was some kind of hero to be admired.  I saw him as a man of loneliness who hungered so much for love that he sought it in so many of the wrong places.  My heart broke for him and this feeling lingered long after the movie ended.  And in an age where most movies leave your memory before you finish the car ride home, that is the best compliment I can give Bohemian Rhapsody.

image by Yasir72.multan

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