Play The Game – A Review of Bohemian Rhapsody

For months I have openly spewed skepticism about the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Not only had the movie spent 8 years in production hell, it had gone through two stars, two directors, and two screenwriters. With band members Brian May and Roger Taylor serving as executive producers, all signs pointed towards a sanitized piece of revisionist history that failed to do Queen justice.

My worst fears were..confirmed. Well, sort of. But maybe I should be okay with it?

Two things should be immediately and permanently debunked about Bohemian – there is no whitewashing of Mercury’s sexuality or relationships with men as many had feared. There’s about as much romantic intrigue as any movie with a (stupidly) self imposed PG-13 ceiling could have. Second, Sacha Baron Cohen would not have done any better than Rami Malek. Queen guitarist Brian May cited, among other reasons, a believability factor when asked why Cohen left the project. Cohen not only has a much more notable career than Malek, he is a persona unto himself. As Freddie, it would’ve been Cohen as Freddie, rather than just playing Freddie. When you see how much Malek truly inhabited the character, May’s assessment is validated beyond reasonable doubt. That much is true.

This much is also true – Bohemian Rhapsody is littered with historical inaccuracies. On one hand, as someone who spends a great deal of time seeking music history related truths, it infuriates me. I can’t believe that May and Taylor, two people who were actually there, would sign off on a version of their story that is so, so wrong in spots. But on the other hand, I am not naive to the cinematic medium and what it sometimes necessitates. Corners need cutting and drama needs to be built.

Eventually, as I began internally clocking the fictionalized elements of the movie, it dawned on me that not all truths are created equal and it’s important to differentiate between what’s of consequence and what isn’t. Among Bohemian’s forgivable (I guess) sins – inaccurate song soundtracking (ex. “Fat Bottomed Girls” underscored the band’s first US tour despite not being recorded for another 5 years), wrong depictions of studio sequences (Taylor, May, and Mercury always recorded each backing vocal together, the movie shows Taylor singing by himself followed by all four members), or the EMI executive who didn’t want to release “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which never happened. These are annoyances to those who’ve read Queen biographies but 99% of people will not care.

Then, there are the unforgivable sins. Not only are these wrong details, these are major touchstones of the movie.

  1. Mary Austin – Freddie’s one time girlfriend and life long confidant is wrongly depicted all over the place. Most importantly though, Freddie never proposed to her like it is shown in the movie. This completely changes their relationship dynamic. Would Austin have stuck around if she and Freddie had gone so far as to be engaged? Tough to say, but it’s fair to doubt it.
  2. The band’s break up – The movie shows a huge band argument about Freddie pursuing a solo career leading to a prolonged dissolution and eventual reconciliation. In real life, the band had recorded The Works in 1984 and had done their last gig two months before Live Aid. The band never split.
  3. Freddie’s AIDS revelation – In the movie Freddie tells the band in rehearsals before Live Aid that he has AIDS. In reality he didn’t know until years later. Other than completely change the context and tone of what is viewed by many as the greatest performance in rock history, this is pretty insignificant.

Am I being too harsh still, even after admitting at least half of my grievances are probably insignificant for the sake of art? Possibly. Defenders of non-fictional truth bending would say that a movie is not a documentary. But it’s the selective accuracy that bothers me most about Bohemian Rhapsody. The same movie with seriously egregious plot detailing includes an absolutely stunning and spot on re-make of Live Aid. Am I supposed to be inside of something that actually happened or not? Is this the real life or is it just fantasy?

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