Bruce Steele: The Thursday night preview audience at Bohemian Rhapsody cheered and applauded at the end of the movie, after an extended recreation of a Queen concert from the 1980s. Were you among them?
Edwin Arnaudin: Sadly, no. The Live Aid show was one of several stretches in the biopic that brought me immense joy and merit cheering, but the film overall has too many issues to warrant that kind of response. Were you in standing ovation mode, hoping for an encore?
Bruce: Like you, I smiled a lot at the extended concert recreations, especially the multi-song Live Aid gig that bookends the movie. But my encore will be revisiting actual Queen concerts on video, both Live Aid and their stupendous two-night stand back at London's Wembley Stadium the next year, 1986, which didn't make it into the movie but does appear on the soundtrack album. Some of the songwriting and studio recording scenes are just as fun as the concerts, but almost all the scenes of biographical drama are just dreadful.
Edwin: I’d prepared myself for Walk Hard-level, Biopic 101 awfulness, but the wealth of iconic Queen songs largely kept the “backstory” — if it can be called that — from derailing the film for me. I’m not saying such tropes as the disapproving father and manipulative personal assistant are laudatory, but at least director Bryan Singer doesn’t linger on them. Still, my main question when the credits rolled was that if Singer and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) weren't willing to go deep and dirty into the life of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek, TV’s Mr. Robot) or his bandmates, is there any longterm value in a project that basically boils down to recreating Queen's hits and memorable moments? Besides steering viewers to the music itself, that is.
Bruce: It certainly won't have longterm value for its filmmaking. Singer was fired a few weeks before the end of filming, reportedly for not showing up, and he seems creatively MIA here as well. The dialogue scenes and lesser characters are film-school dullsville. And the script, on which the surviving band members evidently had a lot of input, shows not an ounce of realism or any ear for how real people talk. Someone actually says, "You're burning the candle at both ends, Freddie," among many examples of characters stating the obvious in the most leaden language imaginable. It was painful.
Edwin: It’s been a while (2008’s Valkyrie, to be precise) since Singer has done anything besides an effects-driven spectacle, and though the CGI used to pull off the Live Aid performance could qualify under that banner, the direction there and elsewhere does feel pretty anonymous. He’s generally excelled at clean, exciting, primarily mutant action, but to be fair, neither in his four X-Men films nor in The Usual Suspects can I identify distinct auteurial stamps.
Bruce: It's increasingly clear that Singer is a script-dependent director, with his films' visual quality stepping up to meet the intensity of the material he's given. Action excites him, whether X-Men or conspiracy or Queen concerts, but dump tepid domestic drama in his lap and he just can't be bothered.
Edwin: As for the, uh, "script and director approval” wielded by guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, it’s yet another sign that certain artists, no matter how great they are in their own field, should stick to what they know. So, with neither of these important elements working for us, other than a means of building to another phenomenal tune, what did you think of the acting?
Bruce: The performances were all competent impersonations, including all the band members and Malek himself. You can see he studied and practiced the facial expressions and gestures needed to mimic Mercury. But that's just it: You can SEE he studied. He doesn't so much embody Freddie as evoke him. It's a valiant and entirely watchable effort, but he doesn't capture Mercury's bright flame. Where the music can carry him, he's pretty good. Otherwise I kept staring at those false teeth. They were a bit much, didn't you think?
Edwin: Hard as I tried to ignore them, I couldn’t help but notice his chompers. It’s weird to think that no one on set with the clout to make changes spoke up loudly enough to dial them back a tad. I agree that Malek is a passable Mercury, but he furthered my desire to see the legendary musician played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who not only looks the part but has the acting range and artistic audacity to pull off a truer, more electric portrayal. Does Cohen as Mercury interest you? And, regardless, do you think he’ll one day get that chance?
Bruce: Whatever we think of it, this movie is a hit, which I think closes off the role to Mr. Cohen for now. I'm not a Cohen fan, but you've seen more of his work than I have, so who knows? I'd like to think that the success of this thin, syrupy film might inspire someone to go deeper with Mercury. In this incarnation, he apparently contracts AIDS without actually having sex with anyone. It's less that the film is afraid of Mercury's, um, mercurial sexuality than it just hasn't the vocabulary — visual, dramatic or verbal — to express it: Why is this bold god of gay sex iconography onstage such a tepid wimp in his private life? Or is that just another attempt by his survivors to mitigate his incendiary lifestyle?
Edwin: It feels like their way of keeping the focus on the music instead of the band’s story, but under the guise of accomplishing both. It’s kind of a dirty trick, especially since it’s one for which I largely fell in the moment, but am having an increasingly difficult time defending the more distance I get from the closing credits. I’d love to see a more honest and competently made look at Mercury’s life, but while we’ve had dual takes on Winston Churchill and Truman Capote within the same year, musicians rarely receive a second chance at having their story on the screen. I’m aware of multiple movies about Brian Wilson, Liberace and Joy Division's Ian Curtis, and plenty of people have played Elvis, but I don’t expect anyone to make another Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles, or Johnny Cash film anytime soon.
Bruce: Well, this take on Mercury could have been worse, since he did have at least two long-term relationships with women and was cagey about his sexuality in public throughout his life. Still, a man who dubs his band Queen and dresses onstage as Mercury did from the start is unlikely to be ambivalent about his same-sex attraction, as Mercury is here. (It takes his girlfriend to tell him he's gay.) And if he was, it's up to the filmmakers to shed some light on that paradox. Instead, we learn little about why Mercury was attracted to anyone at all, or what kink might have floated his boat. That may be too much to ask from a PG-13 movie.
Edwin: The sanitization is very odd. It’s not like Queen fans wouldn’t have turned out for an R-rated Bohemian Rhapsody, and I didn’t exactly see many (any?) teens on Thursday night — but hooray that they can buy their own tickets without parental accompaniment?
Bruce: But the rating is no excuse for the awful dialogue. It's groaner after groaner, like, "Your life is going to be very difficult." No, really? Someone got paid to write that?
Edwin: The filmmakers are so busy getting to the next song that they can’t be bothered to inject creativity into the interim scenes. However, they do a good enough job that once Mercury gets to the Live Aid show, his journey there and the importance of that performance — not to mention his bandmates’ loving reactions — make it even more emotional. I understand why people are clapping at the end, but I really think it’s mainly for that one phenomenal set, not truly the movie as a whole, which I can only give a B-minus.
Bruce: I'm so disappointed in the bio part of this biopic that I've neglected to spend time praising the musical sequences. The recording sessions at which beloved songs are created are a lot of fun, however reductive to the way it probably really happened, and the live shows, when given enough screen time, are dynamically filmed and terrifically entertaining. And that's all that audiences seem to care about. I'll have to calculate an average grade here: An A for the musical scenes, and an F for the biographical drama leaves me at the average of a C.
Grade: C-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse
(Photos: Twentieth Century Fox)