Bohemian Rhapsody might not have succeeded in rocking the critics’ socks off, but for fans of the British rock group, a ticket back in time is good enough.
There’s a scene in Bohemian Rhapsody, the biographical film about the British rock group Queen and its frontman, Freddie Mercury, where the band meets with John Reid (Aiden Gillen), a well-regarded music manager. Reid is impressed with Mercury’s voice and the band’s collective talent, but wants to know what sets them apart from the rest. The camera quickly cuts to Mercury (Rami Malek), and his band members hang back while he coolly replies: “Tell you what it is, Mr Reid. Now we’re four misfits who don’t belong together, we’re playing for the other misfits. They’re the outcasts, right at the back of the room. We’re pretty sure they don’t belong either. We belong to them.”
Since its release in the US and UK last month, and in India last Friday, most critics have panned the film. To be fair to them, Bohemian Rhapsody is guilty of the following: historical inaccuracies, trite dialogues that invite the occasional eyeroll, a refusal to dive into the politics of what it meant to be the son of brown immigrants in the UK, wrestling with a name and identity that possibly felt as uncomfortable as an ill-fitting jumpsuit, and to pin the blame for the frontman’s excesses and vices on another character, as if to say that one is not entirely responsible for being a cockwomble. Is it a biopic? No, it’s more like the Greatest Hits. In fact, what it is, for most part, is a lengthy, highly-entertaining interactive music video for fans who love karaoke. “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” seems to have been the plan.
And it’s worked, becoming the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time. Mercury would likely have scoffed at the film’s critics, just as the band did to those unimpressed by the original six-minute epic song from which the film gets its name; because Queen, and in turn, Bohemian Rhapsody does not belong to them. It belongs to the fans, some eternally young and restless, and the undying old and faithful. It belongs to anybody who wished for a time machine to head back to the day Mercury wrote that inspired hoot of a song, and how it was recorded; to those who are moved by Love of My Life, which on the surface, is a rather simple and pithy ballad, but is utterly transformed by Mercury’s vibrato. How many of us would give anything, even today, to be among the sea of people in
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who sang it in unison, just as a shirtless Mercury was about to sing the first note, way back in 1985?
The film doesn’t explore why this particular band of misfits could create stadium anthems, ballads, and make listeners groove and shimmy and choke up, so consistently, but it throws us a bone now and then. We Will Rock You, every high school and college chant, came from Brian May and not Mercury; bassist John Deacon thrummed the intro to Another One Bites the Dust just to get the rest of the band to stop squabbling with each other; Roger Taylor had suggested dressing in drag for the video of I Want to Break Free but everybody thought it was Mercury’s doing.
These are the moments that stoke a fan’s love for the band a little more, but critics will tell you that cinematic moments aren’t made of these. To borrow from The Little Prince, the great divide between critics and fans occurs because each party believes that only they are concerned with “matters of consequence”.
In Bohemian Rhapsody, it all boils down to the Live Aid concert, held at the Wembley Stadium in London in 1985. The re-creation of that phenomenal 24-minute set is perhaps the only thing that both fans and critics can agree on. Through the duration of the film, we’ve watched Malek show us how Mercury was constantly driven by his desire to become the person he was born to be; in the Live Aid sequence, Malek is Mercury as he struts on the stage, embodying the singer in a way that one could not have been prepared for. In fact, as the camera pans out to show the stage and the thousands of people who sway their hands to We Are the Champions, one can see that the big screens on the side of the stage show footage of the original concert. In one fell swoop, reality and re-creation inhabit the same space, just like life and art. That’s some kind of magic.