‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Takes Us Back to When Queen was King

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Many will say this in their reviews of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and I have to as well: Freddie Mercury was a one-of-a-kind performer. Whenever he was onstage, he had a commanding presence only a handful of artists could ever hope to equal. Nothing seemed to ever hold him back as he rocked us in a way few others, if any, ever could. Watching him and Queen perform in front of thousands of fans also had a cinematic quality to it, and I went into this biopic hoping Bryan Singer (and Dexter Fletcher who replaced him as director) could capture the exhilaration of their live performances. Could such a thing even be possible?

Well, right from the start when Queen performs their own kick-ass version of the 20th Century Fox fanfare, “Bohemian Rhapsody” proves to be an exhilarating ride. While there were times when I thought the filmmakers could have dug even deeper into Freddie’s life and the lives of his fellow bandmates, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, it proves to be a biopic which takes you back in time to when Queen was the biggest thing in music, let alone in the world. But at its center is an iconic singer who is on a long journey not to stardom, but finding respect for himself.

When we first meet Freddie, we learn his birth name was Farrokh Bulsara and that he was the child of a Parsis couple, something I was previously unaware of. His mother Jer (Meneka Das) proves to be a loving presence, but his father Bomi (Ace Bhatti) doesn’t even try to hide his disappointment over the lackadaisical way in which his son lives his life. By day he works as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, and he spends his nights at a local club where a band named Smile performs to an enthusiastic audience. When the lead singer quits, Freddie seizes the opportunity to grab the job, but Brian and Roger feel his overbite will easily upstage him. That is, of course, until they hear him sing.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” at times speeds through the history of Queen to where I wished they would slow down a bit and focus on bits and pieces which haven’t been covered as much in the past. I kept hoping there would be a sequence on the making of the “Flash Gordon” soundtrack, one of the best soundtracks ever. The filmmakers don’t even get around to dealing with the songs they did for “Highlander,” and that was a real bummer. Still, we get to learn about the beginnings of some of their most famous songs like “Another One Bites the Dust” which features one of the greatest bass lines in the history of music, and the immortal rock anthem that is “We Will Rock You.”

One of the movie’s centerpiece’s is the creation of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” which allowed Queen, as the Beatles did with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” to push the boundaries of mainstream music to create something truly unique. This all leads to a scene where the exasperated EMI executive Ray Foster (a priceless Mike Myers) explains how no radio station is about to play a six-minute song, especially one which features opera in it. While it is seen as one of the greatest rock songs ever created, this doesn’t stop the filmmakers from throwing out initial reviews of it which showed anything but admiration. It’s only over time that something can ever be truly considered a classic.

Looking at Freddie’s life overall, it does seem deserving of an R-rating. But for a PG-13 movie, I felt “Bohemian Rhapsody” dug deep enough into the man’s life in ways I usually expect a PG-13 movie to avoid. Some may say this is a sanitized biopic, but I was surprised at how willing the filmmakers were to portray Freddie’s debauched lifestyle and of the underground worlds he chose to delve into. The scene in which Freddie learns he has AIDS is especially devastating, especially when scored to the song “Who Wants to Live Forever.” There is even video footage of people with AIDS, and seeing Freddie watching it is especially heartbreaking as it gives him a glimpse as to what is in store for him.

When it comes to music biopics, I keep thinking of ones like Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” and “I Saw the Light” and of how they kept their main subjects at a distance. This proved to be especially frustrating as I felt like I never got to know more about their main characters, Jim Morrison and Hank Williams, and even wondered why anyone would bother to spend time with them. “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t make this same mistake nor does it hide from Freddie’s flamboyant lifestyle which alienated many of his closest friends. It’s not afraid to make the singer unlikable at times, but it also pays him the respect he deserves especially when he humbly reunites with his bandmates who, unlike other musicians, were never afraid to tell him no.

Rami Malek gives a truly phenomenal performance as Freddie Mercury. If you are still wondering what this movie would have been like had Sacha Baron Cohen not dropped out, Malek will silence those thoughts immediately. It’s as if the actor is possessed by Freddie’s spirit as he inhabits the role with a fearlessness and a gusto to where it is impossible to think of someone who could have been better suited to play the lead singer of Queen. Malek owns the movie from start to finish, and you can’t take your eyes off of him.

Malek also does a brilliant job of letting you see Freddie’s inner turmoil as he struggles with who he is and his sexuality. In many ways Freddie was a social outcast before he came to be the lead singer of Queen, but he becomes even more of an outcast at the height of his fame. Seeing him in almost near isolation from the rest of humanity is distressing, and it reminds me of what the late Robin Williams said in “World’s Greatest Dad:”

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

Kudos also goes out to Lucy Boynton who proves to be a fetching presence as the love of Freddie’s life, Mary Austin. Boynton, whom you may remember from “Murder on the Orient Express,” makes you believe how Mary was a huge lifeline to Freddie, especially when he became deluded and was ruthlessly manipulated by those who never had his best interests at heart. Even as their loving relationship was torn apart, they remained the best of friends, and I believe Freddie when he was quoted as saying how Mary was really his one true friend in the world.

But if you need only one reason to buy a ticket to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it is Singer’s (and Fletcher’s) recreation of Queen’s epic performance at Live Aid in 1985. I’m sure you have all seen footage of this concert on YouTube, but I was enthralled at how the filmmakers made us feel like we were right there in Wembley Stadium where the band played to the largest crowd any band could ever play to. This recreation proves to be one of the most exhilarating sequences I have seen in any 2018 movie, and it is the perfect way to cap off this biopic.

Could a better movie have been made about Freddie Mercury and Queen? Perhaps, but I find it tiring to think of what could have been and would much rather deal with what ended up on the silver screen. “Bohemian Rhapsody” proved to be an immersive cinematic ride which brings back to life an amazing performer who left the land of the living far too soon, but whose role in music history will never ever be forgotten.

Regardless of who deserves the most credit, we owe Dexter Fletcher many thanks as he managed to bring this chaotic production to the finish line and oversaw it during post-production. Without him, I wonder if this movie would have ever been completed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Calvary

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Calvary” is one of those movies which left me in a deep state of contemplative silence after it was over. While it is advertised as a darkly comic tale, and it does have some funny moments, it is really a serious story about sin, faith, and of what it means to be a good person in this day and age. I am always fascinated with movies about Catholics as they deal with characters who suffer psychologically, who are always caught up in one sin or another, and who can’t deal with the state of the world today in a relatively sane manner. The word Calvary is defined as an experience or an occasion of extreme suffering, especially mental suffering, and it is the perfect title for this particular movie.

The character who suffers most in “Calvary” is Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), and the movie opens with him listening to an unseen parishioner who confesses to being sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy. But then the conversation takes a sinister turn when the parishioner tells Father James he will kill him in a week. When Father James asks why, the parishioner tells him it is because he is a good man as well as a good priest, and a good priest’s death will have a far more devastating impact on the Catholic Church. From there, Father James has a week to settle his affairs with the townspeople and his family, and hopefully give him time to discover the identity of his purported assailant. But more than anything else, we will see his faith in the things he believes in get tested more than ever before.

“Calvary” takes place in the small Irish town of Sligo where everyone seems to know one another quite intimately. The more we get to know the town’s inhabitants, the more it seems like any of them could be the one who wants to murder Father James. They all have problems in their lives which have led them to lose their faith or belief in God, and while they come to Father James for help, they also tease and question him over his supposed rule over the town and for supporting a church forever tarnished by scandal.

The movie was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of the insanely talented playwright Martin McDonagh. It’s tempting to think John would be suffering endlessly under his famous brother’s shadow especially after “In Bruges,” but he has already found his voice thanks to his previous film “The Guard.” With “Calvary,” he goes even deeper to explore issues of faith in a time where virtue seems like it’s in such short supply. As good hearted as Father James is, he is surrounded by people who have been scarred deeply by life and have sinned in one way or another. Heck, there are even people who go out of their way to flout their sins in his face just to see how he will react.

What’s really shocking about “Calvary” is John has gotten away with creating a truly good priest. Father James proves to be a good-natured man right from the start, and it made me realize how we don’t always see good characters like these in movies these days. Most characters we typically see are antiheroes or deeply flawed human beings struggling for some form of redemption, and it feels like filmmakers avoid using good characters in their movies for the fear of them appearing quite dull. This is not to say that Father James is not without his own flaws, but even when he waivers you feel his goodness flowing throughout, and you pray he doesn’t falter in the face of what seems at times like a godless town.

John also struck gold by casting Brendan Gleeson as Father James as the actor gives one of the very best performances of his career here. What I love about Gleeson here is he inhabits his character more than he plays him. From start to finish, he is simply Father James, and he gives this character an unforced naturalism which looks easy to portray, but in actuality is quite difficult to pull off. One scene which stands out is when Father James befriends a young girl whom he finds walking along the road by herself, only to be interrupted by the girl’s father who suspects this Catholic priest of being up to no good. It’s a painful moment as we, the audience, have gotten to know Father James quite well, and Gleeson makes the character’s wounded feelings all the more palpable.

Gleeson is also surrounded by a top-notch cast as well. Kelly Reilly, so good in “Eden Lake” and “Flight,” plays Father James’ daughter Fiona who was at one time suicidal and is now very eager to repair her relationship with her dad. From that description, this could have been a subplot overrun by a plethora of clichés, but Reilly invests her character with a wounded strength, and her scenes with Gleeson are wonderfully moving.

We all remember Chris O’Dowd from his star-making performance in “Bridesmaids,” and he is stunning here as Jack, the local butcher who doesn’t seem to mind his wife constantly cheating on him. O’Dowd has some funny moments here, but his role is a serious one as he constantly dares Father James to prove to him there is a god. It should be no surprise O’Dowd is as good as he is in “Calvary,” but then again, we still live in a world where most people think doing comedy is easy while making people cry is hard (it’s the other way around folks).

Irish comedian Dylan Moran successfully wrings the complexity out of his character Michael Fitzgerald, an extremely wealthy man whose life seems to have lost all its meaning. You also have Aidan Gillen here as the gleefully atheist surgeon Dr. Frank Harte, Marie Josee Croze as French tourist Teresa who suffers an unspeakable tragedy, Isaach de Bankole as car mechanic Simon Asamoah who does not like to be bossed around, David Wilmot as the good-natured but rather oblivious Father Leary, Pat Short as the incensed barman Brendan Lynch, Gary Lydon as shady detective Inspector Gerry Stanton, Killian Scott who plays the lovesick Milo, and Orla O’Rourke as the butcher’s flagrantly unfaithful wife Veronica. You even have veteran actor M. Emmet Walsh showing up here as American novelist Gerard Ryan, and even Brendan’s son Domhnall Gleeson shows up, and he looks completely unrecognizable by the way, as serial killer Freddie Joyce.

Every single actor in “Calvary” gives an exceptional performance. It doesn’t matter how big or small the roles are because all are very well written, and each actor seizes the material with tremendous passion. Every character is fully realized here, and no one looks to be off their acting game for one second.

While “Calvary” is a kind of whodunit story, it really doesn’t matter if you know the identity of the person threatening Father James long before it’s revealed because it’s not the point. What matters is how Father James struggles to maintain his faith as dark forces continually close in around him, and you pray he doesn’t lose an ounce of it in the movie’s climax. In the process, John forces you to question your own faith and of what means to be a good person in an increasingly cynical world.

“Calvary” does end on an ambiguous note which may annoy some members of the audience, but I happen to like ambiguous endings, and the one here is perfect. No, it doesn’t provide us with an easy answer, but so what? Not all movies are meant to have easy answers, and this one certainly wouldn’t benefit from any. Every once in a while, it is a good to watch a movie which really forces you to think long and hard about what you just saw.

If nothing else, John came up with a lot of great quotes which will stay with the viewer long after the movie has ended. My favorite has already been spoiled by the movie’s trailer:

“I think there’s too much talk about sins to be honest and not enough talk about virtues.”

Never has a truer line been spoken in a movie released in 2014.

* * * * out of * * * *

Click here to read an exclusive interview I did with John Michael McDonagh on “Calvary.”