Midway through Bohemian Rhapsody, the big screen biopic about legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury that won four Oscars on Sunday, we see a montage of the critical reviews given to the group’s 1975 song of the same name. Queen had put it out as a single and it wasn’t expected to be a success. At six minutes, it was twice as long as most top 40 hits and its bizarre blend of opera, pop and hard rock was like nothing anyone had ever heard before.
“Pompous and overlong,” concluded one music critic. “All flash and calculation without soul,” opined another. “A song that should be sunk to the bottom of the sea and never heard from again,” concluded a third.
If this montage is to be believed, the verdict was universally negative – but the paying public thought otherwise. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ became the Christmas No 1 that year and by the end of January 1976 it had sold more than a million copies. It is the 20th Century’s most streamed song, having been downloaded 1.6 billion times.
I think it’s fair to say the critics got that one wrong. And judging from their reaction to the film, they haven’t learnt their lesson.
On its release last year, Bohemian Rhapsody was greeted with raspberries all round, with film journalists describing it as “ridiculous”, “a succession of predigested clichés” and “royally embarrassing”.
Metacritic, the highly-respected review aggregator, gave it a score of 48 out of 100 – well below most flops. But – surprise, surprise – the unlettered masses begged to differ and flocked to it in droves. It is already the highest-grossing biopic of all time and when it comes to the end of its theatrical run it may also be the highest-grossing live-action musical, beating 2017’s Beauty and the Beast. It has amassed $200+ million at the U.S. box office, $70 million in the U.K., $38 million in Australia and $30 million in Spain.
But it is in East Asia that Bohemian Rhapsody has surpassed all expectations. Japanese movie-goers are so spellbound, they’ve been going to see it over and over again, often dancing in the aisles. Having already taken over $100 million, it’s the highest-grossing film of 2018 in Japan.
The South Koreans are not far behind. They have shelled out $75 million at the box office, more than Bohemian Rhapsody has amassed in the U.K. The big draw there are sing-along screenings, with audience members dressing up as Freddie Mercury.
So why did the critics turn their noses up at a film that’s proving such a global hit? For one thing, it’s an unashamed crowd-pleaser. It begins and ends with Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985, generally regarded as the highlight of the blockbuster charity concert, which was watched by 40 per cent of the world’s population. Between those scenes, we’re treated to a roller-coaster ride through Freddie Mercury’s career, from Heathrow baggage handler in 1970 to his rise as an international superstar, culminating in the release of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ in 1980, which sold even more copies than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Indeed, the film plays a bit like a screen version of We Will Rock You, the long-running West End musical in which a story is weaved around a collection of Queen’s greatest hits.
Another negative for snooty critics is the fact that the band members were unlikely rock heroes. They were all nice middle class boys and high academic achievers from stable family backgrounds. Brian May, the lead guitarist, went to Hampton Grammar School and then to Imperial College, London, where he got a degree in Physics. Drummer Roger Taylor went to a private school in Truro, Cornwall, while bassist John Deacon had a first class degree in electronics from Chelsea College, London.
Freddie himself attended a British-style boarding school in India and graduated with a diploma in art and design from Ealing Art College after first attending Isleworth Polytechnic.
So it isn’t the usual rags-to-riches story that critics have come to expect from rock ’n’ roll biopics – like Walk the Line, the story of country music legend Johnny Cash. Queen’s members made the mistake of being born on the right side of the tracks.
But perhaps the main reason critics didn’t take to Bohemian Rhapsody – and the liberal intelligentsia more widely – is because of its politically incorrect treatment of Mercury’s sexuality. The group’s lead singer is often hailed as a gay icon, but in the film he is a self-proclaimed bisexual and doesn’t ‘come out’ until long after Queen have conquered the world. Indeed, the first half of the film charts his romance with girlfriend and long-time love Mary Austin to whom he left a substantial part of his fortune.
Instead of the standard, chrysalis-to-butterfly narrative, in which a repressed gay artist only finds success when he musters the courage to accept who he is and discard the mask of normality, Bohemian Rhapsody portrays Mercury’s struggle with his sexuality in a more nuanced way.
It’s during his inhibited phase, still plagued by guilt and self-doubt, that Mercury reaches his creative peak as an artist. When he finally casts restraint aside and plunges into the underground world of gay nightclubs in London and Munich pursuing a life of rampant promiscuity, his career goes off the rails and he falls out with his bandmates.
This is a factually accurate account of Freddie Mercury’s rise and fall, but right-on critics prefer films with gay characters to be more celebratory, like 2017’s Oscar winner Moonlight, which told the story of a young, gay, black man in Miami (not exactly a box office hit, though).
Critics usually complain if a film is too cliched. But in this case, their gripe is it’s not cliched enough. After Bohemian Rhapsody astonished everyone by winning a Golden Globe for Best Film Drama last month, some woke entertainment journalists wasted no time making their outrage clear. Adam Vary, a film reporter for BuzzFeed News, greeted the news with moral indignation. “The film treats Freddie’s homosexuality like it’s a cancer on his life and career,” he tweeted.
Dana Schwartz, a reporter at Entertainment Weekly, complained that the film, rated 12, didn’t include scenes featuring full-blown anal sex. “Say what you will about Bohemian Rhapsody, but it was really brave of them to delve into the truth about AIDS, the only disease transmitted through eye contact with blurry nameless extras,” she sarcastically tweeted.
Thankfully, audiences refused to be lectured to by these self-righteous moral guardians – and neither did the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the Golden Globes. They are a motley collection of freelance journalists, most getting on in years, but they proved to be more in touch with popular opinion than the snotty critics who work for more prestigious publications.
At this year’s Academy Awards, there was supposed to be a new category called ‘Outstanding Popular Film’ – a way of trying to shoe-horn in some genuinely entertaining fare, alongside dreary, self-righteous movies like Blackkklansman, Roma and Vice. The U.S. TV ratings for the Oscars hit a nine-year-low in 2018, a slide the producers were desperate to reverse.
But that category was scrapped almost as soon as it was introduced – and it turns out there was no need for it because Bohemian Rhapsody won four Oscars regardless. That helped boost the popularity of the three-hour telecast – along with statuettes for box-office hits Green Book and A Star is Born – which got many more American viewers than last year. The fact that the programme kicked off with the remaining members of Queen belting out We Will Rock You couldn’t have hurt.
If you haven’t seen Bohemian Rhapsody yet, ignore the critics and take yourself off to the cinema. You’re in for a treat. As George Orwell said, the only true test of artistic merit is survival and even though Freddie Mercury died at the tragically young age of 45, he and his band will be remembered long after the critics’ favourites are forgotten.