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There are many, many, many things wrong with Bryan Singer's Bohemian Rhapsody from the joyless portrayal of Freddie Mercury's life to the script which features Mercury spouting music producer jargon to explain the creative magic of Queen, to Mike Myers being, well, Mike Myers in a role that amounts to little more than a dimwitted meta gag.
To get over just how atrocious Bohemian Rhapsody is, I decided to go home and listen to Queen on YouTube. This was fortuitous as YouTube has Queen's performance on Top of the Pops, their first ever television performance, in which they performed "Killer Queen," their breakout hit. It was a performance the band was looking forward to and it turned out to be one of the first disillusioning moments of their career.
Arriving at the studio for Top of the Pops, the show they, and most other music loving youths in England, grew up on, the band was disheartened to find out that they would not actually be performing. Instead, they would be lip-synching and pantomiming their first performance in front of a massive audience. Naturally, this did not sit well with the band.
This before the performance scene is played out as I described it in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody. The band is terribly disappointed to have the people at Top of the Pops be such disappointments to them. They appear genuinely betrayed by the idea that they would have to pretend to perform and just when we think this disappointment is going to amount to something, the band simply follows the rules and pantomime their way through a dull rehash of their hit.
We learn, I guess, through the eyes of young, impressionable artists, that showbiz isn't always what we think it will be. We learn that the band has a lot to learn about the world of corporatized entertainment. What we don't learn is what this scene tells us about the band or Freddie Mercury, the ostensible subject of the movie, Bohemian Rhapsody.
This will be a recurring theme in Bohemian Rhapsody. Repeatedly when we believe we are going to learn something about the will of an artist like Freddie Mercury, when we think we will get some insight about his sense of humor or thought process, a scene like the Top of the Pops scene comes along and reveals nothing about Freddie or the band. They don't protest, they barely exhibit a modest annoyance over the Top of the Pops. They get on stage, do what they are told, and move on.
You can watch their stiff pantomime right now at the top of this article. And, perhaps, the scene in the film is a perfectly accurate reflection of what happened when Queen appeared on Top of the Pops for the first time. This could be a perfect re-enactment—we weren't there, we don't know. Regardless, accuracy of unnecessary detail isn't exactly why we're here.
It might perhaps be accurate that Freddie Mercury ordered eggs for breakfast and put hot sauce on his eggs with a dash of salt but does that rise to the level of the kind of action that belongs in a scene in a movie? Freddie's perfectly acceptable choice of breakfast. Even if he sent the breakfast back for being cold, it would be about as annoyed as he was at the Top of the Pops producers and it still wouldn't be enough to make an actual movie scene of it.
Why is this Top of the Pops scene in the movie? What are we supposed to take away from the scene? That Queen can be annoyed and disappointed but still do what they are told? A similar scene would perhaps be in Oliver Stone's deeply flawed movie, The Doors. In that movie, Val Kilmer's Jim Morrison is told not to use a particular line from his song Light My Fire because the producers of the TV show the band is about to perform on feel the line "Babe, we couldn't get much higher" is inappropriate.
When Morrison subsequently takes the stage to perform he makes a point of using the line he was told to change and because it is live TV, he's gotten away with it. The scene gives us insight into Jim Morrison as a man who cannot be told what to do. He's a rebel, a self-destructive, human obstacle who stands in his own way as much as he does anyone else.
Morrison was true to his nature and in being true he also was never allowed back on a live television show, thus losing a potentially lucrative platform for his work. It seems like a little thing but the move made him an icon among the fans and an enemy of the old guard of propriety and censorship. His refusal to change is remembered far more than the performance itself, you can't make The Doors movie without this moment portrayed within.
The Top of the Pops scene in Bohemian Rhapsody could be lifted from the movie without harming the narrative in any way. Unless the intent was to tell us what great rule followers Queen were. Yes, they were always the most agreeable lads. That's an insight right there, I'm glad we all learned that Queen could be annoyed but remain professional, eager to not burn bridges.
None of what I said about Queen in that paragraph is true, however. In fact, the movie itself will go on to demonstrate that Queen wasn't always compliant and agreeable. They fought with their record company to make A Night at the Opera over the objection of the record company and released Bohemian Rhapsody as a single as a cheeky bit of rebellion on a popular radio show that wasn't supposed to play it but did anyway.
This leads back then to the question of why the Top of the Pops sequence exists in Bohemian Rhapsody and why it is even portrayed as anything other than a footnote. It's notable for being Queen's first television appearance and that is it. There is nothing more important to this scene than that. It doesn't move the plot, it contains no useful insight, it's notable only for being a fact of their career.
A critic for Pitchfork, Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, quite brilliantly wrote that, "Bohemian Rhapsody is basically Queen's Wikipedia entry as a biopic." The Top of the Pops scene could be her thesis point. The scene is basically little more than an anecdote from a Wikipedia entry. If you were wondering how Queen's first television performance went, they were annoyed but they were professional about it.
What truly stinks about this scene and how it reflects other things that are wrong with Bohemian Rhapsody is in how it sets the table for how Freddie Mercury is portrayed in the movie as perpetually perturbed but at the mercy of others. Aside from the radio station scene when he gets Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio, Freddie is basically at everyone's mercy throughout the movie.
When Freddie comes out to his girlfriend played by Lucy Boynton, the moment is taken from him when she says, "Freddie, you're gay." Before that, Freddie is seated at a piano when tour manager Jim Prenter walks up and kisses him and decides for Freddie that he's gay. That's not what happened, of course, but as depicted here, being gay was what other people decided for Freddie Mercury. Freddie Mercury is rarely shown as an agent of his own gayness. He is, however, portrayed as a victim of gayness but that's for a whole other article examining the fear at the heart of Bohemian Rhapsody.
Everyone makes decisions for Freddie until he makes a decision for himself which is then demonstrated to be a wrong decision with dire consequences. Freddie is rarely seen as having his own agency, his own desires. When he decides he wants something, he's portrayed as petulant and wrongheaded. He goes along with Prenter repeatedly despite being miserable about it.
Freddie is portrayed as hating the opulent gay lifestyle that Jim is pressing upon him but he goes with it because... reasons(???). The film would have us believe that Prenter has some sort of svengali like hold on Freddie because Freddie was lonely and desperate for attention, attention he wasn't getting from his band, his family, or his former wife/best friend.
That pliable, perpetually resigned quality is how Freddie is portrayed in the Top of the Pops scene and how he's portrayed throughout the entire movie, when he isn't on stage being the exact opposite of these qualities as a charismatic, joyous, rock God. Who is the real Freddie Mercury? You won't find him in Bohemian Rhapsody.
The Top of the Pops scene is a fake and a fraud which reflects Bohemian Rhapsody the movie, also a fake and a fraud. The film depicts Freddie Mercury as a joyless man-child unable to cope with his own life and choices and thus willing to give over to anyone willing to pay attention to him when he needs it. Much like Queen's stiff pantomime and lip-synch, I'm not buying it.