Bohemian Rhapsody: Cinematic History Repeating Itself
So, it’s old news that the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody won the Best Picture-Drama category at the 76th Golden Globes. Fans around the world rejoiced. Critics sneered. Countless others could not care less about the film or the awards show. Well, it’s been over 24 hours since the unexpected win, which beat out films A Star is Born, BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Black Panther (all of which have received their own critical and audience based acclaim). We could also talk about the fact that another incredibly safe film Green Book won, but that feels more like the Golden Globes picking the most pedestrian option. Sure, you could argue that Bohemian Rhapsody is the same result of a similar action, but I do also think it’s something a bit more. Green Book tried its hand at social politics; it narrowly scratches the surface, and focuses predominantly on its performances and ability to please crowds. Bohemian Rhapsody is flat out a celebration of an icon, and that’s it. Very little of Mercury’s personal life that had no relation to the band Queen is featured (including his sexuality). Every single candid piece of information on Mercury’s life in the film is in accordance to how it affected the band.
The very start of the film shows Live Aid: the destination we wish to get to. That’s the wink at the audience that this is what we all came for. Afterwards, we see Mercury end up at a local gig for a band called Smile; there are a few scenes beforehand to give us the briefest write up of what Mercury was doing at the time (school, and baggage work at an airport). From there, we are jettisoned from all things that only pertained to Mercury and not Queen. His relationships affected the band. His one most important relationship later on in life (with Jim Hutton) is an aside for a duration of the film. The relationships shown (Mary Austin, and manager Paul Prenter) all affect how the band continues, and how Mercury copes with big changes in his life and career (for better or for worse).
Okay, so we have complained enough about the film being geared towards Mercury’s involvement with Queen, and that’s it. What is the point being made here? Well, if it isn’t obvious, Bohemian Rhapsody has cut all of the fat of a story (a little too much), strung together the remnants (with inaccuracies of when specific events happened and how, but hey, we’re not too picky [we say as we challenge Bohemian Rhapsody the entire article, it seems]), and presented to fans. This could be why many common movie goers are so fixated on this flick: it’s a to-the-point cinematic experience, with all of its focuses on being about the iconic frontman and the band the crowd adores.
This is emphasized by the high IMDb rating (8.3/10, which is very strong for that user-based website) and its 90% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The latter website’s critical summary is that the film plays more like a “medley” of Mercury and Queen, rather than a “Greatest Hits” (a cute musical metaphor, of course). Perhaps this is exactly what this kind of audience wanted. There aren’t any complexities, plot deviations, artistic choices that surpass mainstream conventionality, and most of the major songs are in there. Plus, the coveted Live Aid performance is long, gigantic, and likely the best moment of the entire film. To compare, the much-more controversial Vox Lux similarly has an extended performance at the end. No one knows who Celeste is outside of the film, because she doesn’t exist. If the film did its job to involve you, this ending is great. Not everyone loved this ending, critics or audiences alike. With Bohemian Rhapsody, that’s probably the one thing most viewers could agree upon (outside of Rami Malek owning his year-defining performance, of course). We knew where the ending was coming from, and we knew what it was trying to do right away. The start of the film alluded to it, and we patiently waited the entire film for it. It’s lengthy in duration, because it satisfies our wait for it.
Does this mean that the film will now be up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards? Who knows. Even though the last decade has been a much bigger improvement from the ‘90s and ‘00s selections — thanks to online reviews (it isn’t as easy to promote a badly reviewed film at these kinds of events anymore for studios) — there still have been some real clunkers that have made it in somehow. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is considerably worse than Bohemian Rhapsody, but that also isn’t the best gauge to be using. The last number of years, the Academy Awards have never felt closer to their late ‘60s and ‘70s approaches to celebrating cinema. Remember when racy and experimental films (for mainstream cinema, anyways) like Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection won Best Picture? Many people forget that the original Rocky was a sloppy, smaller budgeted labour of love that then turned into a sports film phenomenon. In fact, Rocky may have been the initial bump in the system (no one forgot it won crowds around the world over). It was Chariots of Fire that began to really affect the subsequent awards seasons; shortly afterwards, Out of Africa won, and thus began the Oscar-bait we are mostly familiar with in the new decade.
So what happens? These movements carry on for years. Sure, we get oddly daring winners like The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List, The Last Emperor, Platoon and American Beauty, but let’s remember the rest of the stretch: The unbearably safe Driving Miss Daisy, the polarizing The English Patient, the decent-but-not-best-film-worthy Shakespeare In Love, and macho slog-fests like Braveheart and Gladiator (I’ve learned the hard way not to bash these films too much, so I won’t). Two films I forgot to bring up (for good reason) are Forrest Gump and Titanic. Critically, they aren’t as well received, but that didn’t matter at those times (and arguably now, depending on who you talk to). Their heart was felt, their technical achievements wowed, their performances gripped, and their ability to move you was all people needed. Does that ring a bell at all?
In recent years, lower budgeted works like Moonlight and The Hurt Locker have won the top prize. So have some more out-there stuff for mainstream crowds (Birdman [a dark comedy that relishes in its metaphysical nature], The Artist [a silent film] and The Shape of Water [the only fantasy film to win Best Picture outside of The Return of the King]). Any true stories were much more contextual, heavy, and powerful (I’m thinking 12 Years a Slave, and even the plot heavy Spotlight). We can go all day discussing films I forgot, but that’s the point: there are numerous others in the new millennium. There are also safer films in recent memory that have won; we shall never forget Crash and The King’s Speech. Obviously, it’s no foreign concept that some years, the super-duper conventional works that squeak past more arthouse-inspired or controversial films can win.
With so much backlash towards awards ceremonies for “films I’ve never heard of” winning (as if Decasia or Goodbye to Language won Best Picture, I mean seriously) and the hosting and skits on these shows (okay, that I fully agree with), another rift is bound to happen. Many audiences are tired of politics (well, we are in a cultural and political shift, it’s kind of like going to a board meeting and not agreeing with the viewpoints there, this just happens to be on television, but consider it a board meeting for the industry). So, we’ve come full circle. Here comes two films like Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody that have won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. With the former’s slightly better critical reception and awards race push, we can guarantee that Green Book will make it to the Best Picture roster at the Academy Awards (lord knows what will happen if it wins); will Bohemian Rhapsody make it there? It was considered a shock that it was even nominated, but the jaws that hit the floor after it actually won could be heard around the world.
Yes, review sites may have affected which films get nominated, but we’re in the day and age where social media outlets have never combatted against review aggregates more than now. The Academy Awards wanted to make a “Best Popular Film” category (which will hopefully be shelved permanently) as an attempt to reach the masses. Maybe this is how they’re finally doing it. So, the Academy Awards have the opportunity to break ground by awarding Roma the first ever Best Picture win to a foreign film (the film was sadly ineligible to be nominated at the Golden Globes for silly reasons, but it did pick up wins for Best Foreign Film and Best Director). Or, it can play it safe and award either Green Book or Bohemian Rhapsody. If the latter wins, it’ll solely be based on audience influence. That’s not a bad thing. Films are catered for different crowds, and it resonated with the Friday-night everyday cinephiles more than the hunched-over grouchy critics like me. It can play the middle of the road and try to win both worlds with Green Book, but that would feel very stale when so many years before have been about going against the grain at least to some capacity.
Of course, nominations aren’t even out yet, and we don’t even know which films will be nominated right now. We can only speculate. The point of this article is to emphasize that we can either keep going deeper into the artsy and unusual rabbit hole (good news for people like me), or we can do a full 180° to champion film viewers (like many of you) that have wanted their feel-good, easier works to win for over ten years now. The Academy Awards have rarely been fully accurate, but they have always been a sign of their times. If it does end up being between Green Book or Bohemian Rhapsody, let’s at least ride the full wave and Wayne’s World it the entire way towards crowd pleasing and not half-ass it.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.