Bohemian Rhapsody: The Contract Signing Scene isn't Badly Edited (3300 words)
As far as I’m concerned, Bohemian Rhapsody’s editing is perfectly fine (but I’ve only seen the movie once and didn’t pay much attention to it). Does it deserve its Oscar ? Do we really care ? People take the Oscars more seriously than the Oscars themselves. They reward movies and thus invite us to watch them because they think they’re good. It’s like your most common youtuber video. Except that youtubers, who 99% of the time have uninteresting opinions and poor tastes, are considered humble because they pretend not to take themselves seriously, when they totally do. However when professionals of cinema actually give their opinions and ask us to take them seriously, suddenly it’s arrogant, it’s haughty and we should explain to them how wrong they are with much condescension.
I’ve been slightly annoyed by the backlash that Bohemian Rhapsody’s rewarding has been getting, not because people’s arguments aren’t understandable, they are, but because most spectators and critics leave absolutely no room for the possibility that maybe the academy actually had a reason to choose this movie, that maybe they’re trying to tell them “hey, see this weird editing, it’s actually purposeful, legitimate and relevant, take a close look at it and you’ll find something.” But no, suddenly everybody’s an expert and is too happy to recite his cinema course… and become the narrow-minded teacher who’s too arrogant to understand the hidden logic in his pupil’s work and wants everything to be unimaginative, done by the book, scholarly and deprived of any risk taking. I know it’s a hundred percent ironical.
Here’s a very well made video that analyses the movie’s mediocre editing in its worst scene.
And here’s another video mocking this fast paced nonsensical editing that received an academy award.
And here’s a video of a person who tried to fix the scene’s editing and actually did a good job in making it normally edited and thus deprived it of the meaning that the real version might bear.
And that guy counted the cuts. It seems that I missed a few of them.
And now let’s take a look at this scene and explain why the fast-paced, random and laughably bad editing is good.
Thomas Flight (first link) finds three main problems in it:
1-Many shots seem to have no motivation behind them.
2-They break spatial continuity.
3-The pacing is bad, too fast.
Now, if you decide to reward someone’s work on a movie, it probably is because you consider it to be particularly good, that not only it is done properly but it actually brings a new dimension to the whole work perhaps not by matching but by clashing.
So, what would it mean in the context of this scene that it was edited in such a discordant way ?
The scene is the one of a contract signing with a record company. Freddy arrives after the other members of the band. Brian makes fun of his weird clothes and they all laugh because you know, they’re good friends, and before they have time to realise it, the producer is there. Not much is said. “You’re Freddy Mercury. You’re Queen. You’re talented. What do you have that others don’t ?” “We’re misfits and our fans identify with us.” “Deal. Top of the Pops. World tour. Private plane. Chocolate cake. ”
Another thing that people disliked about the movie is that it felt devoid of any dynamic. Everything goes too smoothly, too nicely and evenly. Exactly like this scene in which the band takes a major step, obtain something that very few bands even approach and it looks like a standard formality. It looks too easy as if the movie was just a hollow celebration of the band’s achievements: “they were so good that they never met any obstacles.”
Now, think about two very common things that you can find at this point of a band’s career: 1-The contract with the record company ends up being unfair and the band gets the feeling that they sold their soul to the devil. 2-There are tensions between members as for the direction that the band should be taking.
It’s not too hard to imagine, is it ? Well, that’s exactly what the editing is telling you.
First, the short shots convey a general feeling of superficiality and fakeness. Depth and true emotions need time. You need to be able to look at characters properly in order to get the impression that they’re expressing something true to how they deeply feel. Short shots can thus be used in order to convey a sense of duplicity, of falsity.
Second, in one of the video, the commenter complains that when John Reid states “so this is Queen” the following shot only contains Taylor, Mercury and Deacon. May is excluded. Yeah ? So ? What does it tell you ? It tells you that Reid doesn’t consider Brian May as part of the band, that something is going on. Not that the editing is poor.
Now let’s look at all this more or less shot by shot (The analyses and descriptions are here under the pictures, usually I illustrates my point with pictures and thus put things in the opposite order).
01-Freddy Mercury is late. Or at least, he didn’t arrive at the same time as the other members. This underlines the fact that the band is fragmented, not necessarily seriously fragmented, but we’re not in front of four friends who wants to share the same destiny and arrived together because they spend time together. It looks more like Freddy Mercury sees Queen as a means to an end. Not necessarily in a violent and selfish way but his priority is fame and success, not them. Also, it suggests that he isn't as worried as they are about the meeting.
He approaches the table. Brian welcomes him with a “Wow.”
02-Medium shot on Freddy who stops walking and doesn’t know whether Brian is being sarcastic or not.
03-Close shot on Brian May who remarks “I didn’t know it was fancy dressing day.”
04-Medium shot on Freddy who explains “I’ve got to make an impression.” "Fancy" is not a derogatory term. He's happy with his clothing, he didn’t take Brian’s remark negatively and might even be thinking that he is receiving a compliment from his band mate.
05-Until Brian adds “you look like an angry Lizard.” The medium shot becomes a close shot because the camera is not filming the clothes anymore but the snide remarks hitting Mercury (The cut is made exactly at the beginning of the sentence). The forward movement is the movement of the sneering remark getting to him. The cut looks clumsy and brutal for a carefree moment between friends but it works perfectly with what's truly happening. Brian has just expressed his contempt for Freddy.
This is a perfect example of how this seemingly bad editing is just on point.
06-Roger Taylor bursts out laughing and the number of shots is already quite high for something of so little importance. Why did we need this shot ? Because Brian wasn’t trying to be funny. It was an insult, he is angry at Freddy for coming to this meeting in such a ridiculous outfit. He is worried they might not get the contract because of this.
07-Close shot of Brian May looking at Taylor. He smiles, happy to see that he is not alone in this position and always eager to look "nice." But also, he is checking that Taylor isn't actually laughing at him for being so irritated, harsh and moody. May isn't certain of who's on whose side. Again, the band is fragmented.
08-Deacon simply states “your best work.”
09-Brian adds “very subtle.”
The extreme shortness of the shots here convey the level of tension behind May's smile. He looks cool and relaxed but he is on edge.
10-Freddy sits down bended forward to hide himself a bit, without looking at Brian May and covering his mouth with his hand. He doesn’t answer any of the man’s attacks that which make them sound harmless and made in good spirit. But they truly aren’t. Brian is flatly insulting Freddy and telling him that he finds him ridiculous. Not once, not twice but four times. Plus, he starts by making him believe that he is actually complimenting his clothing so that his rebukes hits even more violently.
There should have been a clash here. Instead Mercury takes the blows. It's a "just you wait" situation. Hence the covering his mouth and not looking at Brian. If he did one of these, the band would be dead and burried in a minute.
I know that's absolutely not how people perceive Queen. But I'm just talking about a movie here, I don't know much about the real band.
11-Back to Brian’s expression that looks like a mask. I don’t know if you’ve seen that kind of expression before but it’s the “If I could kill you, I would, but I can’t therefore I’m going to pretend that I see you like a puppy.” It’s benevolence mixed with condescension and annoyance. But truly, this expression isn’t that important, what’s important is that he was being harsh with Freddy and that there are tensions behind the fake friendship hence a lot more cuts than we would expect.
We’ve noticed John Reid in a previous shot, behind Freddy, and in that new one he passes behind Brian. Both fail to notice him because of the dispute. The man remains his back turned on them as if he was waiting for them to notice his presence. They don’t, instead we get a shot of Deacon making another joke to Freddy, a real joke that displays warmth and appreciation. “Can I borrow it, for Sunday church ?” Of course the vest would be inappropriate for church.
Because he’s not been spotted, John Reid decides to take a chair himself. The gesture is underlined with a close shot because it’s something the man shouldn’t have had to do. He is the president of the record company. Their fate lies in his hands. He can make rock stars out of them or leave them in the gutter, yet their attitude towards him is nonchalant and borderline disrespectful. They should show some deference, they should have been anxiously expecting his arrival, instead they miss his entrance and did not even make sure to have an additional chair for him.
12-13-The noise made by the chair finally catches their attention. Both May and Mercury jumps out of surprise. It’s problematic for them not to have seen the manager coming. The two very quick reaction shots put May and Mercury on a same foot. They both want to be the leader of the band. They both wished they had seen John Reid arrive first and acknowledged his presence first, but they were too caught up in their fight. What was happening wasn't lighthearted, otherwise they would have spotted John Reid's arrival.
14-John Reid’s face finally appears on screen. He is still looking at the chair. There’s condescension in his attitude too. He wanted the other to look for his gaze before he turns his eyes in their direction, and looks down on them. “I’m important, not you.” When he finally lays his eyes on someone, it’s actually not that obvious who he’s looking at (Mercury I think) but we get reaction shots from May and Taylor and Deacon (15-16), not from the singer. They straighten themselves like they should have a minute ago in order to show their seriousness. Mercury doesn’t. They think that something is at stake, the singer knows that their general attitude won't make a difference.
Here we could have had a shot that included all the band members but we do not: two shots, three members => The band is divided, fragmented, there’s no band. Also, if it’s not obvious who Reid is looking at, it’s clear that it’s not May. The man is turned towards Mercury, Deacon and Taylor.
His gaze is ruthless and his smile is sadistic. The guy is menacing and intimidating.
17-After the two reaction shots, we get another shot at John Reid who finally manages to sit down.
That’s the kind of decision that makes people criticise the editing; so many shots, reaction shots and short meaningless actions being underlined for no obvious reason. But truly, it’s just because the scene isn’t telling the story it seems to be telling.
John Reid has his eyes on Mercury but instead of talking straight to him, he takes a look at Taylor and Deacon.
18-Reaction shot of Mercury who is unsettled. “What, he’s not addressing me ?” Something is going on.
Again another shot that looks completely gratuitous and disturbs the flow of the scene but which is actually justified. Mercury is unsettled because he expected Reid to talk straight to him because they have a secret agreement. Mercury might even have expected Reid to admit that he is going to sign them but specifically thanks to him.
I know it's not an obvious comparison but it makes me think of Clark who is surprised when Lois pretends not to know him at the end of Man of Steel and realises that their relationship will have to become secret.
19-John Reid states “So this is Queen” very flatly. Unimpressed.
20-Extremely weird shot that only includes Taylor, Deacon and Mercury. There clearly is something wrong going on here. What is Brian May if he isn’t part of Queen ?
That's another thing that spectators complained about, the fact that the way the scene is shot, it seems that the actors weren't there at the same time. But that's the point, the band is clearly splitted in 3 groups: Singer VS Guitarist + Passive Neutrals.
21-John Reid points a very pointy finger at Freddy adding: “And you, must be Freddy Mercury.”
I’ve been using the “there’s tension between band members” argument until now, it’s time to tackle the “sold one's soul to the devil” one. What’s with this singling out Freddy Mercury approach ? He even adds “you have a gift” (23) clearly addressing Freddy, before adding “you all have” (24) but we’re back to the Deacon, Taylor, Mercury shot. May is excluded again.
22-Freddy is ill at ease. He tries to put his elbow on the back of his chair in order to look relaxed and decides not to in an instant, betraying his confusion.
25-Close shot on Brian May who’s been put aside since the beginning of the conversation and certainly not included in the “you’ve got a gift” remark. He looks like he is listening seriously, but his facial expression also works perfectly with annoyance, he’s discovering a problem, an obstacle. In this manager's mind, Freddy Mercury is the core of the band and he is nothing.
26-John Reid asks the million dollar question: “What makes you different ?”
27-Close shot on Deacon and Taylor: They have no idea. They don’t feel any different from all those wannabe rock stars out there.
28-Luckily, or not, Freddy has an answer. "We’re misfits, the audience identifies with us. We belong to them."
Spectators and critics complained about this idea being inserted in the movie because Queen was a truly successful band that had nothing to do with this “we appeal to the misfits.” But it’s only Freddy Mercury telling the record manager in order to get the contract. It means nothing. He believes in it for sure, it doesn’t mean that it’s the reason of their success.
29-Reaction shot on Brian May who smiles mysteriously. Does he agree ? Or is he simply happy to hear a somewhat acceptable answer when he didn’t have one ?
30-Deacon/Taylor reactions. Deacon is somewhere else. Taylor actually buys into Freddy’s discourse, he is inspired by it and feels proud of it.
31-32-33-Mercury carries on, Reid agrees while remaining quite impenetrable. By that, I mean that he can agree with Mercury that it’s a good selling argument while finding it pathetic on an ideological level.
34-Brian May jumps on the opportunity to utter a clumsy “we’re a family” that seems to hurt his mouth while he pronounces it. Not “we’re a family for them” but “we, the band members, are a family.” He is saying: “You cannot get rid of me, it would hurt the image of the band. It’d be counterproductive.” He is saving his ass.
Every Brian May shot is necessary to tell this story of: There are tensions between him and Mercury. Brian realises that his position inside the band isn't secured. He feels threatened and needs to find a way not to get dropped. And beyond this little narrative, we also need to see him react to other things as a band member but on his own.
35-John Reid looks at him with his shark smile. “I know what you’re doing and I’ll do whatever I want with you my boy.” Taylor adds “but not two of us are the same.” They all have accepted Mercury’s description of the band for personal reasons. They stand by him behind this idea and it pleases Reid.
36-Long shot of the scene that underlines the fact that the conversation is over, the deal is sealed. But isn’t it suspicious that things should be going so smoothly, so easily ? Are we supposed to believe that the music manager only needed to ask one question to be convinced to sign them ?
What’s happening here, is that everything had already been decided beforehand between Mercury and Reid (phone call) and the last thing that Reid needed was a proof of the internal cohesion of the band. So, as soon as Freddy can make the demonstration of this capacity to get his band members behind him, it’s a deal.
And that’s why Freddy is dressed in a very noticeable way, so that Reid knows who he is supposed to talk to. And that’s why Freddy is uncomfortable when Reid point a finger at him, because it feels too obvious. And that’s why super confident Reid doesn’t say “and you ARE Freddy Mercury” but “and you must be” displaying for one second a capacity to doubt that he doesn’t have. He is hiding the fact that he perfectly knows who he is sitting in front of. And that’s why when he turns towards Taylor and Deacon Freddy panics for an instant, he is worried Reid didn’t guess who was who.
Here we enter the archetypal story of the man who sells his soul to the devil. In order to obtain this contract, Freddy has accepted to give something huge to John Reid in return. What ? I don’t know. But in this long shot, suddenly appears a servant who brings John Reid a coffee. Aren’t there any waiter in this pub ? He looks at Freddy and obviously we all interpret it as the birth of an attraction between the two (36-37), but it’s also Freddy looking at himself. He’s just become Reid’s slave and this secret unacknowledged gaze is the acknowledgment of something secret going on. Paul is telling Freddy Mercury “From now on, I’ll keep an eye on you” or “from now on, you do what I say.” Freddy has just signed a contract with the devil.
37-“Paul, meet Queen, our new signing.” First wide medium shot that includes everybody this time, the thing is, it now includes absolutely everybody: Deacon, Taylor, Mercury, May, Reid and Prenter. Queen is not a band constituted of four musicians, Queen is the four musicians, the music manager and Freddy’s personal manager. => From that moment, the band wouldn’t exist without the secret deal that Reid and Mercury made.
38-39-May and Taylor are stunned by how easy it was to obtain a contract. (And they should be).
40-Freddy isn’t and the side look he gives is exactly the kind of body language that betrays that something is secretly going on here.
41-John Reid talks radio and television.
42-Taylor reacts enthusiastically. These two shots are needed to create a contrast with how Mercury is going to react and what he is going to ask.
43-John Reid confirms.
44-Mercury becomes cocky because he knows he is giving a lot more than their talent. “And then...”
45-John Reid acts innocent. Wide medium shot that includes everybody because the manager is using the fake situation to his advantage. Deacon, May and Taylor are necessarily still overwhelmed and satisfied, they’re not going to be inclined to ask for more than a simple contract and Reid is trying to make Mercury appear greedy.
46-It works. Deacon lowers his head, Taylor smiles at this manager being overwhelmed in the face of their high ambitions.
47-48-Freddy Mercury remains dead serious and looks at John Reid acting. “If it goes well, if it happens.”
49-Here is a very interesting cut. Freddy looks away from John Reid. The previous shot is cut right before “if it happens.” That’s the kind of thing that youtube’s experts find unacceptably mediocre. But, this clumsy cut underlines that Freddy is already thinking of something else. Something else is going on. He is not interested in Reid’s blathering because he feels like he’s been had. He is disappointed.
50-That’s when Reid’s makes his real offer, the promotional tour in Japan. That’s the real gift that Freddy is getting in return for what he has sold to John Reid.
51-But Freddy is now vexed or suspicious and stutters that they’ll want more… or maybe he is now realising that nothing will ever make him feel that he’s getting enough in return for what he’s giving. (Maybe he simply had sex with John Reid, I don't know).
52-John Reid “Every Band wants more.”
53-Here a funny twisty twist takes place. Deacon is suddenly on Freddy’s side: “Every band is not Queen.” Freddy’s cocky attitude and Reid’s seeming compliance have convinced them that they were really that good, that truly Queen is exceptional (at that point they aren’t).
54-Prenter/Freddy as a slave, raises his eyebrows. “You have me, but my band is on my side.”
55-Brian reappears because, you know, he’s here and he's happy to be.
56-John smiles emptily without making a better offer. He knows Mercury is stuck.
57-It takes Freddy a little time before he accepts to meet Reid’s gaze and truly seal the deal. Why would it ? Why would a little unknown band be so incredibly reluctant to sign a contract with a record company that offers them Radio, Tv and a tour in Japan on the first time they meet ? And why would the scene ends on Freddy Mercury's eyes meeting the ones of the record manager ? Instead we could have had all the people present propose a toast or any group reaction. But we have Freddy making eye contact with Reid. He's selling his soul to the devil.
There’s no problem with the editing of the scene. It’s only a good editing that suggests that there’s more going on than what appearances would have us believe. It is tensed, fake, superficial and it needed to be fast-paced and to contain a few abrupt disorienting cuts so that it doesn't feel natural and smooth and because these crude cuts simply convey the truth of what's happening.