LIKE the band whose story it tells, the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” divides the critics from the crowds. Nearly every critic praised lead actor Rami Malek for a convincing portrayal of Freddie Mercury, but found the movie sanitized, formulaic, and bland, very much unlike Queen and Mercury themselves. But the crowd—or at least the members of the crowd who took the time to share their reviews online—loved the movie. Its numbers are solid. Variety magazine reported on Saturday that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was on track to make US$43 million in its first weekend in North American movie houses alone.
What did the critics not like? The most common complaints were that it revealed too little about Mercury’s oversize personality and moralized too much, in that it seemed to suggest Mercury would have fared so much better if he hadn’t gotten mixed up with a fast, gay crowd and, in particular, a gay lover and personal assistant. Not being a movie critic, I went to watch “Bohemian Rhapsody” expecting only a bit of a nostalgia trip and a few laughs, and I got more than my money’s worth. For the thrill of feeling the crowd react to the bass line of “Another One Bites the Dust” (1980), I would pay for the price of admission again. That endures as one of my favorite bass lines of all time, right up there with “Come Together” (1969) by The Beatles and “Pictures of You” (1990) by The Cure.
True, I can’t claim to know for certain what “Bohemian Rhapsody” means any better than I did before seeing this movie, but isn’t imagining what the songwriter was trying to say part of the joys of being a music fan? Like a letter or a book, a song finds completion in the listener’s heart and mind. I read BoRha as an anthem of reinvention. Some of its lines suggest how difficult it can be to discard an old self that one has outgrown, to pull away when such forces as tradition and family ties seek to keep one in place. What the Italian Scaramouche and the Spanish fandango have to do with these ideas, I still haven’t figured out yet. Perhaps the band wanted some fun layered into this rock opera they were so determined to perform.
Farrokh Bulsara was 29 when he wrote it. He would have turned 72 this year, and it’s anyone’s guess how he would feel about the fact that his songs live on in KTV bars (though not always in the pitch he intended) and late-night sessions of garage bands a long, long way from London and Zanzibar. There’s even a bossa nova version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that will test your maturity and tolerance for other people’s musical preferences. One thing I did learn from the movie was that “Another One Bites the Dust” probably wasn’t written as a sports stadium anthem, which is what countless post-game airings have made of “We are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You” (both 1977). Is it about the songwriter’s musical rivals? His sexual conquests? And who is Steve, who “walks warily down the street”? These questions were not on our minds as my friends and I waited for “Another One...” to play between sets whenever we tagged along for our high school volleyball team’s off-campus matches in 1988 and 1989. We simply thought it was a good song for cheering our team on.
If your family liked to wait for the early evening local newscast on GMA, you probably saw some Queen music videos a lot in those years. “Radio Ga Ga” (1984) received airtime nearly every day, which meant that before you could watch a comic book come to life in A-ha’s “Take on Me” (1985) or see Madonna rolling around on the street in “Burning Up” (1983), Queen would show you a family, all wearing gas masks, gathered around a dinner table while their old-fashioned wireless glowed from a shelf, and outside the march of industry changed the world as they knew it. Mercury sang, “You’ve yet to have your finest hour.” Which was not entirely true, but was a lovely thing to say, nonetheless.