Sunday, June 16, 2019
Rock Watch: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
One of my earliest memories is being about three, hanging from the inside of the garage door and singing "We Will Rock You" and kicking the garage door to the beat. Who knew a 3 year old would have that kind of appreciation for a Brian May guitar lick?
It's hard to piece together what I knew about Queen and when. It doesn't help that time for kids is so distended, and what were minor hiatuses for the band were epic blocks of time to me back then. I do remember them coming back into my consciousness with "Radio Gaga". I remember a bit of Live Aid on playback (but not live). I remember Freddie passing.
And, of course, anyone around at the time remembers the post-mortem, Wayne's World supported explosion of "Bohemian Rhapsody", a song I can't say I'd heard before.
The film opened up this last year and was far bigger than I expected, pulling in near superhero movie levels at $200+ million (Freddie and the crew being really pretty close to rock superheroes, maybe its just good timing). But the film also brought along with it a lot of negative press as the rumors and stories you'd read about director Bryan Singer going all the way back to 2006's Superman Returns came back in full force in light of the #MeToo movement.
In 2019, the film won two fairly substantial Oscars with Rami Malek earning a Best Actor and John Ottman pulling in a Best Film Editing. It also got awards for Best Sound Mixing, about which I have fewer opinions.
I didn't see the movie in the theater, but SimonUK did. About 8 times (Si will do this. It's a thing.). And he brought over the BluRay Saturday and he, me, Jamie and AmyC settled in.
In a lot of ways, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) feels like an infomercial about why Queen is great and should be remembered - and in that, I think the movie, just by showing what the band was basically like and playing Queen songs did give us an idea what it was like to see Queen live. And that's a reminder that, holy @#$%, this band is/was, in fact, amazing.
But... I can't help but notice remaining members of the band were listed in above-the-line credits, and I assume as they're characters in the movie, they had a lot of hand in how the movie and story were shaped. While i'm kind of bored by the Behind the Music-style tales of rock stars over-indulging and getting sober, or whatever the flavor of "and then there was a dark period they didn't die from", I'm not sure this sort of lightweight mythologizing of how the songs came to be - works great either.
I am not sure a movie about Queen should occasionally remind me so much of a Monkees episode.
Because the movie (wisely) focuses on Freddie Mercury, his struggles with his identity as an immigrant, as gay, as an outsider, the other three become this sort of troupe of 3 who enter and exit rooms together, seem to all get personality-free wives at the same time (off camera and undiscussed) and always seem like upbeat, chummy versions of themselves who can get over what appears to be a vicious fight in two seconds because of a cool bass-line. While not presented as perfect people, this is also the version they want their grandchildren to see.
Biopics are hard, and share none of the benefits of longform television when it comes to building to a point as one tries to put a narrative to someone's life. Instead, the shape of the movie becomes a really odd bullet point version of Freddie Mercury's career and personal life, popping us from scene to scene with no sense of year or history, resting just long enough to get us through the genesis of some of Queen's biggest hits - and, in better moments that got us the Malek nomination - some on-point character work.
Because it can feel like a Powerpoint with specific ideas per slide, and mission statements tucked in with underlining so you get it with no question, we wind up with some really clunky dialog that can undercut some of the more important ideas. I was flat out embarrassed for the actors having to deliver the scene where they explained why Queen was different and why they should be signed.
I'm just not sure this script didn't need another few drafts. There's nothing here about mercury or Queen that you wouldn't get from a longform article in People Magazine, and it has the same toothless manner in dealing with the realities of the behind-the-scenes world of the band. And, frankly, that was some serious shorthand for the AIDS crisis and the importance of high profile people like Freddie Mercury to put a face on what was happening.
So, like I say, the movie won the Oscar for Best Editing, which I found... odd. Look, I *noticed* the editing in this film. I was *seeing* cuts. The cuts felt weirdly self-conscious or unnecessary. There are rules about how and why one cuts to an animal, and one reason to cut to an animal is to cover for the fact you don't have the coverage you want for a complete scene. And we see a *lot* of cats in reaction shots (I like cats, too, but this moved into wacky-comedy territory from time to time). Some cuts feel oddly unmotivated or bring attention to themselves. It feels... rough.
Some of the graphics chosen are similarly unmotivated, while other graphics (say, telling us when and where things are occurring in on-montage sequences) could have been helpful. And the Live-Aid Wembley sequence, as the big end-capper, goes for some really odd blandishments and CGI I don't entirely get.
John Ottman is, actually, a good editor (and composer! but let's not get distracted). I am wonder out loud if his nod was more from people in the know about what he was working with to pull together, which may not have been a lot. Singer's well-known (*I* know about it for goodness sake) erratic behavior on sets apparently came to a head during the filming of this movie.
I don't know. I do know... this is not great editing. I can't say I see what the voters were wow'd by.
As for Malek... he's good! No question. He really does move and behave like the footage you'll see of Mercury when in performance. I'm just not sure the scenes where he's just being Freddie were "this was the best thing in 2019" material. He's not helped along by script or direction here - there's a lot of staring into middle-distance. But, this is why I always raise an eyebrow at the Oscars in general.
But... in general, I did like the movie well enough. I don't necessarily want to watch a movie about four guys suffering as they make it to stardom, so I don't have a prescription here - just another pass or three at the script by people with no legal ties to the Queen corporation would be good.
But it mostly left me wondering how much better this would have been as an FX series under Ryan Murphy's supervision, a la Fosse/ Verdon, which... y'all, watch Fosse/Verdon. It had the participation of family, did nothing to protect the reps of either real person, and still left me a mess at the end. What Malek could have actually done given his commitment and strength... But, as something that gave me some Queen music and a bit of a story, I can dig it.