“We Will Rock You.” “Another One Bites the Dust.” “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
These are the hits by the rock band Queen that everyone knows. They’ve worked themselves into popular culture in such subtle ways that the classic “stomp, stomp, clap” portion of “We Will Rock You” feels as though it’s always been there. (It hasn’t, by the way. Guitarist Brian May wrote it. Weird, huh?)
But those are only the most obvious of their chart-topping singles. They have plenty of songs you may not have had any idea were theirs. “Killer Queen” seems obvious, but what about “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “You’re My Best Friend” or even “Fat Bottomed Girls” — of all things.
This was a band that for 20 years swept across the landscape of rock ‘n’ roll like a tornado, mixing up genres, styles, and upending musical hierarchy.
This week’s film, named after the brilliantly bizarre rock opera single “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is one I was looking forward to simply because I wanted to sing along. As it stands, the movie is sometimes more, often times much less, than I was hoping for.
Opening at the famous Live Aid concert in 1985, the film quickly flashes back to 1970 where a young Freddie Mercury, or as he was originally known, Farrokh Bulsara, is knocking around London looking for direction. He happens to catch a set by a band called Smile. When he goes to commend the musicians, he finds out their lead singer has just quit. Smile, comprised of Brian May, Roger Taylor, and later John Deacon, eventually becomes Queen — and heads off to stardom. While these early scenes are interesting, this part of the story is given short shrift, as is any real exploration of what made the band so groundbreaking.
Queen is different from bands like Led Zeppelin and Van Halen not because of technical skill, but because of genius innovations and out-of-the-box thinking.
Do not expect “Bohemian Rhapsody” to give you any insight into the creation of, say, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” however. As May’s character says to a recalcitrant producer (a giant in-joke as said producer is played by “Queen” super-fan Mike Myers), “It’s better if you don’t have it all explained to you.”
OK, that may be, but I didn’t choose to make a movie about stuff that I don’t want to explain.
The film spends much more time on the life and travails of Mercury himself. In this way, the movie goes a little further than I expected in its honest portrayal of the singer’s life as a closeted gay man. Mercury was a troubled, if eternally enthusiastic character — a personality that seemed destined to catapult itself and any in its orbit to stardom, but equally likely to cause all that success to go up in flames.
Dare I say, he was mercurial? OK — sorry. I won’t do that again. The movie spends a lot of time examining the characteristics of healthy versus unhealthy relationships, which is certainly worthwhile, though not really the kind of movie you’re looking for when you talk about the musical madness of Queen.
“Rhapsody” was a troubled production to say the least. Director Bryan Singer was fired after a tumultuous falling out with star Rami Malek — and that was only after the original idea for the film fell apart due to creative differences with previous star Sasha Baron Cohen.
Cohen, who really looks like a young Mercury, was interested in a much more in-depth and raw look at the life of Mercury, which went against the wishes of the surviving members of the band, who wanted a movie more focused on the history of Queen and the lives of the band members in the aftermath of Mercury’s death. (Mercury died of AIDS-related complications in 1991).
In the end, the movie is a kind of amalgam of the two ideas, both of which are given short shrift. The music and acting in the film are great, and it’s certainly entertaining and even a little enlightening. Ultimately, though, it leaves you wanting more.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is certainly not bad, but is, in the end, an opportunity squandered. Grade: B+
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is rated PG-13 for language, drug use, and adult themes.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.