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Bohemian Rhapsody: Right tone, wrong timeline

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Right tone, wrong timeline

Stephen H. Provost

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

The opening lines of the Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody are also the question viewers are left asking after seeing the film of the same name. At least this viewer.

This this is the kind of thing that happens when the fan and the historian are the same person. You love a movie that paints a triumphant picture of your favorite band, but you hate the fact that it paints outside the lines to do it: especially when it messes with the chronology.

Granted, Queen and frontman Freddie Mercury painted outside the lines all the time. It’s part of what made them great, and band members Brian May and Roger Taylor did produce the movie, so ...

Bohemian Rhapsody is epic. I loved it. But it’s also wrong, and what’s troubling about that is that it exposes something about propaganda in general: It gives us not the whole truth, but what we want to believe. The truth on steroids, which is, in the end, not the truth at all. What we end up with is what’s convenient to the storyline, and history be damned.

In an era when politicians rewrite history – without apology – for their own exaltation, that’s even more worrisome.

The Real Rio

The moviemakers decided to make Queen’s inspiring Live Aid performance the lynchpin of Freddie’s life. The film begins with him about to step on stage at Wembley, then ends with the band whipping the massive soccer stadium crowd into a frenzy. That moment was a kind of magic, no question. Queen stole the show. You couldn’t imagine a greater triumph if you tried.

But the film does try. Too hard. Sometimes, it seems like it doesn’t want to be a Queen biopic, but Rocky VII. To create an epic comeback story, it has Freddie quit the band (something that didn’t happen), and posits that he found out he was HIV-positive just before that epic performance. The truth? He wasn’t diagnosed until two years later.

Reality check: Queen released an album called The Works the year before Live Aid, and toured in support of the album after that. That record-breaking Rio performance, depicted in the film as happening sometime in the seventies? It actually took place during this tour, in 1985. The band hadn’t even performed in South America before that. This was during the time the movie suggests Queen was “broken up,” but the Rio show was part of a tour that ended just two months before Live Aid.

Broken up? I don’t think so.

Freddie as Rocky Balboa

None of this is a problem for me as a moviegoer. I happen be a sucker for “Rocky” movies, and the story, as told by the movie, was inspiring. But as a Queen fan and history buff, it made me cringe: The movie should have carried the tag “based on a true story,” because it fudged so many things. Yes, I know Hollywood does this. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

When Ron Howard made Cinderella Man in 2005, he didn’t add to the drama by having Jim Braddock knock out Joe Louis in the final scene. He didn’t have to. Braddock’s shocking win over Max Baer was epic enough. The fact that Braddock lost to Louis in his next fight was no shame, especially when Braddock knocked down the greatest heavyweight of his era in that fight. (There were, to be fair, a few inaccuracies in that film, too; most notably, Baer was portrayed as a jerk, when the real Baer was apparently a teddy bear.)

Some of the historical inaccuracies in Rhapsody don’t add to the drama, but seem wedged in where they don’t belong for no particular reason.

Why, for instance, does Queen play Fat Bottomed Girls on a tour that supposedly took place years before that song was released? And why does the film show We Will Rock You being conceived after Crazy Little Thing Called Love was a hit? Contrary to what the film would have you believe, WWRY came out two albums earlier, and Freddie was not sporting his famous mustache at the time. There’s just no reason to do this sort of thing. Even casual Queen fans will know you’ve gotten it wrong.

What’s there, what’s not

Others have had different problems with the film. Some, for instance, say it glosses over Freddie’s hedonistic lifestyle. I’m OK with that, because the movie made it quite clear that he loved to party and have casual sex. Sometimes, inference is a lot more effective than hitting someone over the head. I don’t need to see one sex-and-drugs scene after another paraded in front of me to get that point; if the movie had done so, it would have bogged down the narrative. I think the moviemakers took the right approach to this one.

They also got the casting right. Rami Malek doesn’t look as much like Freddie as I had hoped, but he makes up for it with a standout performance. And the rest of the band? Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy are dead ringers for May and Taylor, respectively, and Joseph Mazzello looks a lot like the real John Deacon, too. The hair stylist deserves a shout-out for getting Deacon’s oft-changing coiffures dead-on most of the time.

(If you’re wondering, the photo above shows the three-quarters of the real Queen – Deacon, May and Mercury – on tour in 1977. Notice Mercury does not wear a mustache.)

The film’s lighter moments, such as the argument over Taylor’s tune I’m In Love With My Car, are a lot of fun, if perhaps a bit too few.

The film misses a few gems. David Bowie, whose memorable duet with Freddie on Under Pressure was the best thing about Hot Space, doesn’t make an appearance, and the film also fails to mention that Queen snagged its first Top of the Pops appearance because Bowie had canceled out 24 hours earlier. (Another connection: Queen’s first tour supported Mott the Hoople, whose biggest hit was penned by Bowie.)

Fans love this sort of trivia, but the movie was created for a mass audience, and it’s probably too much to ask that such minutiae be squeezed into 2 hours and 14 minutes of screen time.

And mass audiences seem to love the film. As of this writing, they’re giving it a 94 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while less enthusiastic critics have it at 59 percent. As is often the case, I’m with the fans on this one. To reiterate, I loved the movie.

I would have loved it even more if the fictional Queen had played We Will Rock You in 1977 and Fat Bottomed Girls in 1978, the way the real Queen did.

Was that really too much to ask?