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Film Review

New Films: Bohemian Rhapsody, Beautiful Boy

Bohemian Rhapsody
Directed by Bryan Singer
(officially, although completed by Dexter Fletcher)

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a great example of the kind of film where you have to decide if you’re judging the film itself or the film you wanted it to be. What it is, is a surprisingly light, shallow, restrained look back at Queen, one of the greatest and most successful bands of all time – like a tribute album reimagined for the big screen. What it isn’t, is anything much deeper than that – airing lightly soiled laundry more than anything too dirty.

It’s not that it doesn’t dig into the darker corners, it’s just that it doesn’t dig very far – more of a light turning of the topsoil. Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) is seen as somebody who liked to party occasionally and who had a few unseen casual sexual encounters, while the rest of the band are largely portrayed as highly educated boy scouts who had to tolerate his behavior while butter wouldn’t melt in their collective mouths. But this is also a film authorized and co-produced by the surviving members of the band.

There’s an extended sequence in the film that recreates the band’s epic Live Aid performance, widely considered the greatest live performance of any band ever, that starts with their manager removing a piece of tape that indicated a limit on the volume slider on the sound board. Oddly, the film itself feels like somebody did the opposite, and dialed most of the content down.

It’s not a film attempting to unveil any great revelations nor is it a film that’s trying to educate the viewer on much of the story behind the music. It’s not Queen’s “Love & Mercy” – although at times it feels as though it could have been. But much of the drama and the details of Mercury’s life was hidden from the press at the time, including his AIDS diagnosis until he was close to death, and the film feels almost like the story that might have been told at that time, rather than an in-depth and open retrospective.

However, despite all that, it’s still a fun film for fans to watch. Malek manages to achieve a remarkable impersonation of Freddie Mercury’s appearance and there’s no shortage of original music in the soundtrack – hence the tribute album analogy earlier. It’s also amusing to see Mercury not just as a musical genius and icon, but as a cat lady. But it’s also a little muddied by what feels like stunt casting. Mike Myers, who famously played Wayne in “Wayne’s World,” is seemingly cast as a record executive just for the joke value of having him deliver a line about Bohemian Rhapsody not being a song anybody would turn up and sing along to in their cars.

I grew up watching Queen on shows like “Top of the Pops” and I enjoyed being reminded of those times. And for me, the lead performance and the music was enough to keep me entertained. But those wanting more than that are likely to be disappointed.


Beautiful Boy
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen

Another film dividing or perhaps simply underwhelming critics, and barely holding onto a fresh rating at RottenTomatoes.com, is “Beautiful Boy,” starring Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet as father and son David and Nic Sheff, based on their respective books about Nic’s drug addiction. It’s an interesting film as it focuses more on David’s struggle with Nic’s addiction, as his father, than on the addiction itself – and the film title is the title of David’s book (Nic’s own book was titled “Tweak”).

The problem with films like this, at this point, is that we’ve seen addiction onscreen enough to know where we’re heading when somebody claims that they’re clean or trying to get clean. We saw it as recently as the fourth remake of “A Star is Born“ earlier this month. And both the cycle of addiction and films about it are likely to be at least somewhat repetitive in nature.

But this one worked for me. The two main performances are strong and affecting, as Nic loses any sense of control and David moves from a position of trying to help to realizing he can’t. If anything, the story loses some sense of desperation as we’re watching a wealthy family that’s able to pay for whatever treatment program seems appropriate without risking homes or jobs or financial stability. However that doesn’t diminish the emotional turmoil of a father who simply can’t see how his son came to this point in his life or any way of getting back the person he was before.

That’s also reflected in the often non-linear sequencing of scenes. It’s not the non-linearity of out of sequence storytelling, it’s the non-linearity of a parent’s memory, as each moment of intimacy or reflection causes David to remember earlier times with his son. And so we jump between the film’s present and past, just as David’s mind does. It’s also interesting to see Nic move from one drug to another, apparently (according to a briefly glimpsed comment in his notebook) turning from crystal meth to heroin while at college simply because it was easier to find.

The supporting performances are good here as well, with Maura Tierney as David’s new wide and Nic’;s stepmother, and Amy Ryan as Nic’s relatively estranged mother who finds herself suddenly back in their lives as they slowly unravel.

“Beautiful Boy” is a powerful film that’s less about addiction than the impact of addiction on others and one father’s desperation and ultimate capitulation to the disease. It’s carried by the two stars and likely to garner awards buzz and nominations – and seems like another solid step in Chalamet’s upwards career trajectory.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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