Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aiden Gillan, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: Anthony McCarten
There’s a scene in the middle of Bohemian Rhapsody where the four members of Queen are pitching their latest album to a big-time music producer. They’ve all agreed that the lead single must be their poetic, operatic six-minute song entitled ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but this big record label cheese isn’t going for it. It’s “not possible”, he says. The radio stations won’t play anything over three minutes. The song has too many weird words and sounds in it. This isn’t the kind of song that teenagers can bang their heads to at top volume in the car. It’ll never work! He entreats them to stick to the rock anthem formula that’s already worked for them, but Queen isn’t interested in formulas. They want to push boundaries, defy labels, and make music nobody has ever heard before. The buffoonish bigwig (played by famed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ headbanger Mike Myers no less) refuses to budge and, as the bandmates storm out, he obnoxiously declares “Mark these words, no one will play Queen”.
While the scene itself is entirely fictional (the Ray Foster character that Myers plays was invented for the film), to dwell on that out is to miss the point. This is a dramatization of a true story and liberties have to be taken. The purpose of this scene is to emphasise Queen’s nonconformity and artistic integrity. They will not allow themselves to be constrained by the rules, formulas and standards set by musically illiterate hacks and moneygrubbing executives. They’re in it for the music and they want to offer the audience something new, dynamic and unique. It’s an admirable mission statement made by an innovative band fronted by one of the greatest, most ingenious singers who ever lived. It’s why I wish Bohemian Rhapsody had even one tenth of the originality, fearlessness and spirit of its main character and the music he and the rest of Queen created. For a movie that so eagerly champions the notion of subverting expectations, breaking all the rules, and challenging the norm, Bohemian Rhapsody is so painfully generic, formulaic and predictable. If you’ve seen the parodic take that Walk Hard offered on films of this exact kind, its derivativeness becomes almost laughable.
It pains me to write this because I had high expectations for this film, not least because Queen was probably the greatest sing-along band of my childhood (the only other two that come close are The Beatles and ABBA). Yet it sticks to the weathered musical biopic template so rigidly that you half expect the movie’s version of Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek) to lose his sense of sight, suffer a childhood trauma that haunts him throughout his career, or go through a meltdown that involves breaking a nearby sink. The prescribed beats are all there; we meet a young, naïve singer with enormous, untapped talent who finds success and fame despite the scepticism of his disapproving family and then rises to superstardom before losing themselves in a cesspit of sex and drugs. In the end the singer hits rock bottom but is then inspired to seek and find redemption in the form of a triumphant comeback. None of this is done in service of telling a specific story with something meaningful to say about the singer and the life he lived; the emphasis is on hitting as many major life moments as they can while cramming in as many songs as possible. What you get is thus a Wikipedia article with a soundtrack. It tells you the who, what, when and wheres of Freddie’s life, but you won’t learn anything about him.
The reason for this is that Bohemian Rhapsody has little, if any, interest in the humanity behind the story. The movie instead concerns itself with minor details of little consequence such as which band member wrote which song, as if the real Brian May and Roger Taylor (played by Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy respectively) feel that their roles in the story won’t be fully appreciated unless it’s made clear to the audience that it wasn’t Freddie who wrote ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. While this movie does at least delve more into the musician’s creative process than other biopics tend to do, it still comes at the expense of any introspective explorations of character. Take Freddie Mercury’s ethnicity as an example. Freddie was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar to Parsi parents, yet part of the reason this did not prove to be a barrier in his pursuit of rock and roll stardom is because he could pass for white. This angle has the makings of a potentially fascinating and culturally relevant story. Was Freddie’s ethnicity one of the reasons he felt like an outcast growing up and was it partly what inspired him to make music for other outcasts? Did passing for white stir up complicated feelings about his family, culture and identity? Does Rami Malek, an American actor of Egyptian descent, identify with these feelings on some level? Any viewer hoping that Bohemian Rhapsody will address these questions on any meaningful level will be left disappointed.
Another side of Freddie’s character that the movie at least attempts to address on a thoughtful level is his sexual orientation and the result is… problematic. I don’t think this is because the film’s PG-13 rating necessitated a less explicit exploration of his sex life, in fact a part of me likes the idea of a mainstream Hollywood movie in which an LGBT icon is celebrated as a legend being readily accessible to teenagers and children. The problem is that the film’s depiction of his sexuality is so backwards it feels like it could have been made in the 90s. For one thing the movie doesn’t allow Freddie to express his sexuality on his own terms. When he comes out as bisexual to his fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), which is exactly what he declared himself to be in real life, she replies “Freddie, you’re gay”. Having an LGBT man’s sexuality dictated to him by a heterosexual woman is one thing, but then the movie proceeds to portray his homosexuality as an actively destructive force in his life even after he embraces it. His most prominent relationship with another man is shared with the band’s manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), the most unambiguously villainous character in the film. It is he who gets the blame for Freddie’s debauchery as he supplies him with booze, drugs and groupies. He also manipulates Freddie into leaving Queen in order to pursue a career as a soloist because the film is loath to give its lead any significant amount of autonomy.
That the film had a messy production did it no favours. Even after losing their original attached star, Bohemian Rhapsody went on to lose its director Bryan Singer, who remains credited in the final film, amid a scandal in which he was accused of being a sexual predator. The movie feels embarrassingly chopped together in its finished form and contains several scenes edited within an inch of their lives with no direction other than to give every member of Queen an equal amount of screen time. Even then, however, there may not have been very much that stand-in director Dexter Fletcher could have done to save the film with what he had been left by Singer to work with. Even putting aside his reprehensible actions, Singer is probably the blandest director they could have chosen out of all the openly gay directors working in Hollywood. There is little that is distinctive in the way Bohemian Rhapsody is shot, except for the actual ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ sequence which recreates the image of the band shrouded in darkness from the music video while passages from the original negative reviews of the song flash on-screen as it grows into a phenomenon, and many of the scenes feel so generic in their inclusion (including a scene that’s helpfully captioned “Midwest USA”) that it feels like they were doing a colour-by-numbers biopic from the start. I can only dream what somebody like Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Lee Daniels, Jodie Foster or Ryan Murphy might have done with Freddie Mercury’s story.
Still, Bohemian Rhapsody is not without its good points. Its best quality by a mile and a half is Rami Malek’s performance as the champion himself. In the years since his death Freddie Mercury has evolved to become more myth than man and that is a difficult persona for any actor to imitate, never mind embody. What Malek does is far more than mere lip-syncing and dancing on a stage; he captures this electrifying, larger-than-life essence with a wicked air of flamboyance and a swaggering stance and walk that make you believe he could have been one of the great, demonstrative, hypersexual stars of glam rock along with David Bowie, Elton John and Prince. That Malek manages all of this while still channelling the deeper humanity beneath it all shows what an inspired casting choice he was and hints at the Freddie Mercury biopic that could have been. You get a sense of the man who was living this self-made persona even before he had an audience to perform for and who shows himself capable of both tremendous arrogance and narcissism and heartfelt affection and sincerity. It is a truly extraordinary performance deserving of an extraordinary film.
The movie is usually at its most sensational and superficial during the musical performances and nowhere is this more evident than the 1985 Live Aid sequence where Freddie reforms with Queen and delivers a knockout concert for the ages as if his life depended on it (which, the way the movie tells it, it kind of did). If there’s one thing that Bohemian Rhapsody gets absolutely right apart from Malek, it’s that a stunning, breathtaking finale can make an audience feel like the whole effort was worth it. Even if it rings hollow to those who happen to know that Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, which the movie uses as the justification for bringing Queen back together (even though they never actually broke up) for the concert, actually happened two years later, it’s still hard not to be completely swept away by Malek’s magnetic presence, the pulsating energy, and the sheer awesomeness of Queen’s music. That doesn’t make it any less superficial though. It’s a glorious moment for Freddie, but it isn’t a humanising one. Bohemian Rhapsody is nothing more than a greatest hits compilation that doesn’t even have a story to tell, never mind a statement of actual substance. What we got instead is a two star biopic entirely unworthy of the man it depicts or the music he created (and, truth be told, that second star is mostly for Malek).