Saturday, January 19, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Bohemian Rhapsody

A funny thing happened during this topsy-turvy awards season that hardly anyone saw coming. Back in November, the troubled production of "Bohemian Rhapsody" opened to middling reviews and was quickly dismissed as a non-starter in the Oscar race. But then, the film became a bonafide box office phenomenon (currently approaching $200 million at the US box office at the time of writing) and then went on become a Best Picture frontrunner following a shocking Golden Globe win for Best Drama.

I was one of those critics who dismissed the film upon release, figuring it would just be accepted as the conventional Freddie Mercury biopic it so clearly is. But as the industry continues to declare its support of this controversial film, it felt prudent to give it a second look. I therefore revisited it with an open mind to try to understand what works and what doesn't.

What's immediately clear is that this is a star vehicle for Rami Malek, who is well on his way to a Best Actor nomination. His performance is affected and showy, but it's nothing if not consistent. Whether it's a perfect imitation or not, it's definitely one that conveys the spirit of a man who was born to be on stage. On that note, the film's climactic recreation of Queen's iconic Live Aid performance is easily one of the best scenes of the year. Even as the rest of the film failed to grab me this time around, that ending holds up brilliantly. I found myself involuntarily singing along, completely entranced in the music and the showmanship.

Indeed, the film does deserve some kudos for its entertaining portrayal of the band's creative process and performances. Yet, there's no denying that these scenes benefit from artistry that has little to do with the actual filmmaking itself. Indeed, the timeless songs are what sustains the film, while the actors essentially lip synch and pantomime. Yes, the recreation of Freddie Mercury's flashy and fabulous fashion sense are worthy of awards attention for Best Costume Design. But it would be dishonest to give Malek the credit for the impact of the music.

Still, the story behind that music is worthy of the big screen treatment in itself. But despite the band and its lead singer's boundary-pushing reputation, the storytelling in "Bohemian Rhapsody" is disappointingly conservative. There are hardly any narrative beats we haven't seen before in countless musical biopics. Personally, I can forgive its much derided manipulation of the facts and its downplaying of Mercury's sexuality. What I can't forgive, however, is an uninspired narrative. Did it get the job done and ultimately entertain me? Yes. But outside of Malek's performance and the music, there's nothing spectacular or outstanding about "Bohemian Rhapsody".

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