BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: A reflection on Bohemian Rhapsody [Bryan Singer, 2018]
There are few people alive who won’t recognise this title as one of the epic Queen rock songs, a genre-breaking classic that combines opera, rock, ballad and some very strange words. Nevertheless it captures the epitome of Queen, the 1970s English rock group that took on the world and stole the show at the now legendary Live Aid famine relief concert in 1985. I was a teenager at home on the farm and realised, listening to the concert in the hay shed, that I was witnessing history. This is the story of the just-released film, Bohemian Rhapsody, which has seen very positive reviews, however with some complaints about chronology. One one level it is the story of the rows and reconciliation of a famous band but on another level it is the story of Freddie Mercury, the classic outsider; an Immigrant from Zanzibar who finds his God given talent in spectacular fashion and then, tragically dies of AIDS.
There is an element of a Greek tragedy about it, as befitting the best opera theme, insofar as the main character, Freddie, is under pressure from a number of issues externally and internally. The real tragedy is that it is only very late on in the film when he realises who his real friends are, what real love is and how he has been deceived in many ways. Ignatius Loyola, no stranger to the excesses of the life and death drama that most of us inhabit, has a useful scheme for characterising the different forces, spirits or movements (cf. Rob Marsh SJ ») within us. In his view, there are only really two basic movements, one toward God, genuine love, relationship and community, and the other which runs in the opposite direction towards destruction, egoism, false love, manipulation and isolation. You can actually feel these movements realised in pivotal cinematic movements, the appreciation for a performer at the top of his game or alternatively the desolation of the wild excesses of partying. As Freddie discovers, these are difficult to see when you’re caught up in world tours, fame and wealth, loneliness and exploring your sexuality. He needs other people to meet his craving for ‘somebody to love’: genuine affection, ‘family’ and acceptance. In the pivotal scene in the film, Freddie comes back to ask forgiveness from the other band members for conceit and selfishness in pursuing a solo career, the lure of filthy lucre a key motivator. In a rare display of humility he admits that he was wrong to go it alone, and that he needs the challenge and squabbles of being a ‘family’ to be able to achieve true greatness.
The film doesn’t waste any time, diving straight into the destructiveness versus creativity dynamic by highlighting a number of key decision points where the two movements, towards the good (God, connection) or the bad (ego, selfishness) are clearly demarcated. There have been critiques that the film is not chronological or accurate in its recounting of events but I forgive all this for this sake of the dramatic redemptive storyline, a veritable prodigal son story that reverberates with all of us. There is the initial journey away from home and into rock star excess and self-destruction, the realisation of the emptiness of it all and the humbling journey back home to family and genuine friends. It is somewhat of a simplification but the meta narrative justifies this dramatic synthesis of the life and death struggle, or alternatively ‘waiting for the hammer to fall’ as Brian May interprets the song of this name.
Some of the themes where we see these movements most clearly are:
- Friendship vs falsehood: as Freddie gets more famous, he attracts all sorts of people to him, not all of whom are genuine friends. It is an inevitable rise-to-fame interplay between true and false friends. His manager Paul Prenter is foremost among his friends in the film but is always pressurising for something more. In the film he is instrumental in deceiving Freddie about wanting him to go solo, and in real life was the one who famously exposed Freddie’s wild lifestyle in print. Contrast that with someone like Brian May, who is always there for Freddie through thick and thin, and defends him to the end.
- Loneliness vs connection: one of the most poignant scenes in the film is the aftermath of a huge party where Freddie is alone and vulnerable after his band friends exit early and he parties on in wanton, empty abandon. Portrayed here as an employee, Jim Hutton, makes an incisive comment about Freddie needing to love himself first before anything. The excessive drank and drugs party transpires as very shallow and empty, devoid of real friendship or caring, a clear movement of desolation. Alternatively, it takes the whole film for Freddie to realise the genuine friend that is Jim Hutton.
- Talent vs ego: It is clear from early on that Freddie has something special in the way of singing, vocal range and harmonics, but especially in performance and showmanship. He really knows how to ‘work’ a crowd and they respond to him, as testified by the singing back to him of Love of My Life in Rio and the magnificent call and response sequence in Live Aid. There is a kind of magic in these sequences that is palpable and emotive, someone who has discovered their calling in conducting and communicating with a crowd. Contrast this with the scenes where Freddie appears as the king at his own shallow, empty party where he alienates the band members, to see where it plays into vanity and excess and loses the ‘magic’.
- Family vs individual: The former is an important word in the film, central to all aspects of his initial upbringing and family of origin, as much as the key word used to describe the close ties between band members and their self understanding especially in relation to the creative music making process. Freddie’s reconciliation scene with the band is all about restoring the centrality of ‘familial’ relationships, realising where he is really loved and supported and where the genuine creativity happens. Contrast this with the scene where Freddie leaves the band to pursue a solo career, having rubbished the idea of family and hired contract musicians, which he later admits was a musical dead end.
- Honesty vs dishonesty: One of the easiest movements to spot in the film is that of manipulation vs honest motives. The character of his manager, Paul Prenter, is probably overdone as the ‘evil’ one who is overly attracted to Freddie, who desperately wants to be close but who is instrumental in the deception over the offer to go solo, and ultimately involved in some of the most desolating scenes of excess. In a key scene in a stretch limo, Freddie fires his former manager without realising that Paul (“not the only ‘snake’ in this car”) was in on the deal all along. This controlling and manipulating behaviour comes to a head one dark, rainy desolate night and Freddie rightly throws him out of his life. Why it took him so long to wake up to the reality is the viewer’s question, the movement of deceit and control being blindly obvious to all and sundry. Contrast this with the relationship with Mary Austin, who is the faithful but spurned wife (he was in fact only engaged to her) who remains true to the end. She is the beacon of faithful love, her suffering very evident at times, but always watching from the wings, the acclaimed Love of his Life.
- Emotive vs empty musical performance: The film works despite historical inaccuracies that place the Live Aid concert at the apex of the film and the 20 minute Queen set is a veritable Night at the Opera of pathos, power and brilliance. The songs, many of whom we have seen being born during the film, come to dazzling splendour in their natural concert setting. Every song is a triumph of the human spirit in the face of impending disaster, from Bohemian Rhapsody’s dramatic irony (nothing really matters) to the triumphant all conquering anthem, We we the Champions. I challenge anyone to watch this and not be moved by the music and the meaning. Contrast this with the anaemic Smile band songs at the film’s beginning; Freddie brings about a world embracing conversion in the music and the band.
This is a synthesis of my own personal take on the film, strongly influenced by my own musical memories. The viewer has to make up his/her own mind ultimately, but I suggest that the reason the film is so gripping is because it portrays the tragic hero (we all know where this ends up) in all of his humanity with the weight of dilemma, decisions and consequences. Like most people, Freddie has to learn the hard way about the ways of the world and how to recognise true friendship, giftedness and love. The real tragedy was that he was taken too soon, the brilliance lost before he could grasp this learning. Some commentators claim that the song, Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the best selling singles of all time, is about Freddie’s own life, his struggle with identity as an immigrant from Zanzibar, and to come to terms with his giftedness, sexuality and also his dark side. See the drama written into the very autobiographical lyrics:
I don’t wanna die,
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all…
I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me
(He’s just a poor boy from a poor family
Spare him his life from this monstrosity.)