Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody film reviews - the good, the bad and the angry

It's no surprise that my sixth novel, the Queen-infused Now I'm Here, is benefiting from the publicity for the new Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. Although I started the novel more than twenty years ago, news of the film's pre-production two years ago gave me a kickstart to complete it.

But with reviews for the film rolling in, I'm wondering about associating myself too closely with what is being criticized by some media as a standard "paint-by-numbers' celebrity drama that misses the mark, specifically without a nuanced approach to Freddie Mercury's life and homosexuality.

First, the good news. My novel continues to hover in the top 100 for several categories on This is despite my recommendations that readers purchase the novel through alternative means, specifically directly from the publisher, and via independent bookstores. Then, you can review it on the corporate websites, thus "playing the game," as Freddie's song goes.

True, the advance screening at the Castro Theatre earlier this month left me giddy with having seen the film. But something wasn't exactly right. Still, that I decided to record the onstage interviews with actors Rami Malek, Joe Mazzello and Gwylim Lee proved smart. I posted the lightly edited clips on YouTube, and it's been viewed more than 8,000 times and received almost 200 likes.

That's due in part to the devotion and eager anticipation of Queen fans, along with my clever keyword usage. You can view it here:

Now that the thrill of seeing the film early and seeing three of the four actors playing the band members has subsided, I've of course been curious to see media reviews. Some are good, some not nice and a few take the film to task for "queer erasure."

The Good
A C-Net review hints at Oscar nomination potential. True, it's got a trifecta of traditions: a straight man playing a gay man, who is also a deceased celebrity, who also dies of AIDS.

"[Rami Malek] doesn't look exactly like Mercury, but embodies him head to toe, from the small glance he gives a male fan in a crowded hallway to the heartbreak he experiences. His performance carries the film and is filled with heart even in some of Mercury's darker moments," writes Patrick Holland.

He also encapsulates a moment when Mercury is shown finishing parts of the titular song.

"There's a moment while Mercury writes the lyrics to the song that is part act of creation and part divine inspiration. It's just him alone at a piano in a farmhouse and his emotions are raw and on full display. You realize he is one of those fortunate people who's absolutely naturally talented."

Holland also highlights the visual look of the film, which is richly colored, beautifully shot, and the retro costumes are fantastic. 

The Los Angeles Blade says the film "crowns a queer hero" in its review. 

"Bohemian Rhapsody” seems poised to be a big hit, and deservedly so.  Sure, it’s mainstream fluff, but there’s nothing wrong with that when it’s done this well; and in its decision to address Mercury’s complex sexual identity, it achieves real significance.  It would have been easy enough to allude discreetly, perhaps, to his same-sex relationships, or to downplay his role as the first major rock star to die of AIDS, but this movie does neither.  Instead, it unequivocally celebrates the icon’s truth, arguably allowing him to “come out” officially for the first time – and in doing so, cements his well-deserved status as the queer hero we’ve always known him to be."

Variety commends Malek's "commanding performance" in its review.

Writes Owen Glieberman, "Onstage, Malek’s Freddie is a studded leather peacock, swoony and liberated, letting the life force pour out of him in a glorious tremolo, most extraordinarily during the film’s climactic sequence, a song-for-song, move-for-move reënactment of Queen’s legendary reunion set at the London Live Aid concert in 1985.  Malek, wearing a wife beater and arm band and Mercury’s signature honcho mustache, with liquid dark eyes that drink in the crowd and stare it down, struts and poses and leads the audience in vocal chants as if he owned the world (which, at that moment, Freddie sort of did)."

 But Glieberman also cites what will probably become an ongoing -and valid- critique:

"The movie, despite its electrifying subject, is a conventional, middle-of-the-road, cut-and-dried, play-it-safe, rather fuddy-duddy old-school biopic, [is] a movie that skitters through events instead of sinking into them. And it treats Freddie’s personal life — his sexual-romantic identity, his loneliness, his reckless adventures in gay leather clubs — with kid-gloves reticence, so that even if the film isn’t telling major lies, you don’t feel you’re fully touching the real story either. Freddie Mercury was a brazenly sexual person who felt compelled to keep his sexuality hidden, but that’s no excuse for a movie about him to be so painfully polite."

Freddie Mercury in leather, 1978
The Bad
Indiewire calls the film "a broad, frivolous, and uselessly formulaic biopic about an inimitable band of misfits..." 

Writer David Ehrlich says that "Precious little of Bohemian Rhapsody is interested in human beings and how they work. More often than not, the film makes you feel like you’re watching a group of talented actors cos-play Queen’s Wikipedia page, all of them fudging the facts whenever they get too close to making these rock legends seem like real people."

Another dig: "It’s inexplicably perverse that the movie retcons Mercury’s HIV diagnosis as the band’s motivation for Live Aid… a concert that took place two years before the singer is believed to have been diagnosed. It’s insulting to see the lengths to which this film tries to capture the melodrama of Queen’s music, and humiliating to see the lengths by which it fails."

Ehrlich also calls the film a "terrible and self-indulgent piece of revisionist history, where the legend is always prioritized over the truth, even when the truth was surely far more interesting."

The Angry
In the most scathing critique, Into, the trans and queer-focused website, calls out an 'erasure of queerness.' Writer Juan Barquin brings up the 'coulda-beens' about Mercury's life, as quoted by music producer and manager Simon Napier-Bel:

“When [Mercury] said he was different in his private life from the performer he was on stage, what he really meant was that he was forced to retire into his shell because of the fear his Parsee family would have had of him coming out,” Napier-Bell continued. “Had he come out from the beginning, his long, slow death would have been something that the gay community could have thanked him for. They would have used it to their advantage, turned it into something wonderfully, tragically show business, and made him the new Judy Garland. He might even have found himself enjoying it!”

But he didn't. Asking him to do so posthumously is the sort of angry response some have had in repeating both the difficult and defiantly gayer aspects of Mercury's life that cannot be changed.

But that doesn't mean it had to be moralized or sanitized for the film, which predictably compartmentalizes aspects of Mercury's life to suit the needs of a mainstream film.

Writes Barquin, "The problem, then, lies in the way history has chosen to remember him, simply as a flaming frontman or as a gay man, bisexuality erased and deeper looks into his life left in the shadows. Bohemian Rhapsody shamefully reinforces these things in its revisionism, a problem that stems from both its PG-13 rating and the fact that the surviving straight members of Queen had too much of a hand in telling a dead queer man’s tale."

True, the film isolates Mercury's more somewhat-openly gay years into a plot device. Into's Barquin again:

"On screen, a recording of the song 'Another One Bites the Dust' is accompanied with deep red lighting and the most tame imagery of a leather bar ever caught on film. It is meant to be a sign of the sinful, and deadly, depths Mercury was crawling into to get off; a very uncomfortable visual wink and nod that equates the song to AIDS."

So what are we to do? Certainly most Queen fans will watch the film, and quibble over anachronistic song choices and placement.

But will they understand the depth of error in a film mostly about a gay man produced almost entirely by straight people(except for Bryan Singer, who left/was dismissed after shooting 80% of the film)? Will they understand how, as Barquin states, the film portrays queerness as Mercury’s downfall?

 The CBC's Peter Knegt sums up the multiple offenses in a scathing critique, subtitled,

The Freddie Mercury biopic isn't just inaccurate — its demonization of his sexuality is actively harmful.

"Chief among the evil queers (and, really, the only one who has even remote character development) is Paul Pretner, Mercury's manager who lures him away from the band and down a path of leather bars and benders. There's an entire article devoted to the myriad of historical inaccuracies the film conjures up in the name of making Pretner Bohemian Rhapsody's big bad wolf. 

In turn, this hands millions of people the impression that the deceased real-life person behind him (Pretner passed away from AIDS in 1991, the same year as Mercury) is deserving of this villainous legacy. 

Jim Hutton with Freddie Mercury in the late 1980s
All the straight people being portrayed, however, come out of the film looking like flawless saints (particularly the rest of the band, some of whom unsurprisingly played a role in the making of the film). There's one particular sequence involving Paul Pretner's heavily fictionalized role in Mercury's descent that stands out as one of Bohemian Rhapsody's greatest crimes. 

Pretner and Mercury are at what appears to be a gay leather bar where every single patron has a vacant, satanic look on their face. As Queen classic "Another One Bites The Dust" plays, Pretner takes Mercury into a sex room, and then the film cuts to Mercury looking sickly in bed coughing as the song continues playing. (Get it? He's biting the dust!) With the subtlety of an episode of Riverdale, the film decides to suggest to the world that this is how Mercury contracted HIV, which a) is inaccurate, as it is not known how he did, and b) reinforces the dangerous and tired trope of AIDS being a "punishment" for gay promiscuity."


Either way, it's not like we're going to get a better version. And, as IndieWire's Ehrlich states, "For all the ways in which Bohemian Rhapsody fails as a film, it more than succeeds as a reminder of Queen’s greatness, and as a compelling advertisement for their back catalogue."

One of what will be many articles about Mercury himself, the UK Guardian posits the 'real' Freddie Mercury as more complex than the film portrays. Writer Alexis Petridis states:

"There’s no mention of the impact of [Mercury's] queerness on his songwriting, beyond the admittedly intriguing implication that the lyrics of Love of My Life and Bohemian Rhapsody might have been fueled by anguish over his sexuality. You don’t have to delve deep into semantics to find other examples, although you can if you want." 

Petridis continues: "You only have to listen to [Queen's] albums or watch live footage to know the truth was far more complicated and interesting. But perhaps Mercury wouldn’t have cared. 'I’m not going to be an Eva Perón,' he once said. 'I don’t want to go down in history worried about, ‘My god, I hope they realize that, after I’m dead, I’ve created something or I was something.’ I’ve been having fun.'"

Like many other longtime fans, I've been watching real concert footage and interviews to get more enjoyment from the prolific band. I even created a Queen playlist of the songs referenced as chapter titles in my novel.

You can, of course, also read my novel, which includes a Queen concert and songs as part of the story. It's about two gay teenagers who become men and face some of the same problems that Mercury did, although on a much smaller scale.

Queen will continue to inspire and entertain. Despite the film's numerous flaws, it's making millions since it opened, and hapless fans are loving it. Others aren't.

No comments:

Post a Comment