Trying to Love the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Trailer
How can a trailer compare to a legend?
On May 15th, 20th Century Fox dropped the trailer for the Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. As it just so happened, I had been listening to Queen on the drive into work that day (“Death on Two Legs”), and I was still listening to them when I opened my laptop and saw the trailer was out (“March of the Black Queen”). I’ve been looking forward to this film since Sacha Baron Cohen was attached to star as Freddie Mercury. When he left the project over creative differences, I thought the film would languish in development hell for another decade. To my surprise, Fox bounced back, cast Rami Malek as Mr. Bad Guy, and the project carried on. When I saw the first promo stills of Malek as Mercury, I was awestruck at how close he looked. Now, seeing him in motion in the trailer, I have to say, I think he nails the look. I’m excited to see how he actually plays Mercury as a both a rockstar and as a regular person.
That said, this film has all the hallmarks of just being another floundering biopic, and I can’t really shake the feeling that it’s going to let me down. First off, it’s had a troubled production, including a director switch from Bryan Singer to Dexter Fletcher near the end of filming. Very few of the people brought in to work on it were able to come to one consistent vision, and now I’m worried that it will be a hybrid of passion project and cash grab. Second, biopics, particularly music biopics, face the problem that they, by nature, are going to let people down. There are three ways this can go: the film can be overly vaunting of the subject, making them seem so perfect that they basically spend their run time preaching to the converted rather than telling compelling stories; they can force a person’s story, either interesting or mundane, into a generic narrative format that isn’t better than any other film and doesn’t please anyone; or it could try to capture the spirit of the subject and tell a semi-fictionalized story that pleases everybody but the fans who know the true story. Usually, the latter option is the least offensive one as long as the filmmaking is solid enough to make fans ignore the liberties taken, as was the case with the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton (the highest grossing music biopic of all-time).
When Cohen left Bohemian Rhapsody, he indicated that he did so because the surviving members of Queen wanted the film to be the first kind of biopic, the sanitized self-aggrandizing kind. Looking at the trailer for the film, I think they may have gotten their wish. As much as I want to love the trailer, and acknowledging that it is just a trailer, it looks bland. I was hoping that maybe the studio just cut a smart trailer, one that didn’t give everything away. Then, I remembered that the film is based on well-known real life events and characters; there’s no reason to not lead with the best stuff. By that I mean show off the strong dialogue, the weighty story beats, the crazy set pieces, and, of course, the stylish music scenes. Unfortunately, the majority of the trailer is just imagery of Rami Malek in various Freddie Mercury costumes, while Queen’s music plays over it.
Basically, the trailer just assures me that the film exists and is about Queen. It does nothing to make me think it can live up to the expectations set forth by the band’s enduring place in pop culture. Most of Cohen’s more daring choices for the story, and even for writers and directors, were dismissed by the band. The general level of quality for music biopics has gone up in recent years, but they aren’t usually exceptional. They’re usually safe. Queen was, in every way, a larger than life band; playing it safe doesn’t even seem like it should be an option. Of course, since Queen’s music is so iconic, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t likely to lose money no matter what form it takes.
As I said, the best biopics are usually the ones that are at least semi-fictionalized, and focus more on capturing the essential parts of the subject and their story as a digestible narrative than they do historical fidelity. Moneyball, Schindler’s List, and Steve Jobs all succeeded because they went in wanting to tell a story rather than recount history. That doesn’t mean that biopics can’t or won’t tell a compelling story while being historically accurate. As for Bohemian Rhapsody, I’m not sure we can judge what kind of biopic it will ultimately end up being just from this minute and a half. Since it is only a trailer (more of a teaser really), the only things I really have to go on are past music biopics, and biopics in general.
So, as a big budget music biopic, the high-water marks are films like Ray, Walk the Line, and the aforementioned Straight Outta Compton. I think Bohemian Rhapsody, like those films, benefits by centering on a musical act whose legacy is a lasting part of the zeitgeist. Can everyone name their favorite Queen song? Maybe not. Does everyone know “Another One Bites the Dust”, “We Will Rock You”, “We Are the Champions”, “Under Pressure”, and of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Absolutely. Freddie Mercury even had the honor of having his own Google Doodle. The thing is, none of those successful films portrayed the subjects as outright heroes, and they all had very distinct tones that fit the subject.
Take the trailer for Ray, for instance. It was a great film with an Academy Award-winning performance from Jamie Foxx. The trailers sold the film on Foxx’s performance and on Ray Charles’ own legacy. The trailers showed enough minor and major moments to give a complete picture of what the final product would be. They tried to match the tone of Charles’ music rather than just pump the music in as background. The trailers themselves told stories, and they weren’t all focused on showing how perfectly awesome Ray Charles was. Again, I’m only going off of a glorified teaser, but Bohemian Rhapsody‘s trailer didn’t show off any great dialogue moments, set pieces, or cinematography that made my eyes widen. There were a few good one-liners, but other than the background music and Rami Malek’s costuming, there wasn’t much that felt daring or distinctly Queen.
For instance, multiple publications have noted that in its rush to achieve mass appeal, the teaser trailer glossed over Mercury’s homosexuality in favor of showing his appeal to women. I personally don’t mind that as much. It kind of fits with Mercury’s own approach of not making it a huge deal. I do understand the complaint though, and it fits with what Sacha Baron Cohen suggested about sterilizing the entire story. Mercury died of AIDS, and that’s part of his story; to only barely hint at it in the first big reveal trailer is a bit of a letdown that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the film. Many music biopics do make a point of playing up the subject’s sexual escapades and promiscuity, but had the trailer played up Mercury’s queerness, it likely would have been attacked for focusing too heavily on that and not the music. I think that particular choice was one without a winning outcome, and it’s a point where we have to remind ourselves it was just a trailer. The film can and hopefully will delve deeper into the singer’s sexual exploits and other deeper moments in Queen’s story.
I’m more excited than not for Bohemian Rhapsody, but I was just as excited for A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Netflix’s biopic about Doug Kinney and the beginning of National Lampoon. That film was a complete disappointment that took something endlessly interesting, something that has deep pop culture roots, and made it a rushed life story. Bohemian Rhapsody could easily fall into the same trap. The studio clearly has confidence in it as they moved the film’s release date up from December 25, 2018 to November 2, 2018 (which pushes X-Men: Dark Phoenix back to February 14, 2019). I like Rami Malek, and I dig Queen, so I’m glad Bohemian Rhapsody will get here a little sooner than expected.