The flamboyant, complicated Freddie Mercury takes the stage
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is a sweeping, judgmental presentation of Mercury’s family, sexuality, relationships, and artistry
Written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, and Lucy Boynton
PG-13, Now Playing
Bohemian Rhapsody is marketed as a Freddie Mercury biopic, but it also promises to show Queen’s rise to fame, Mercury’s family life, and his sexuality coupled with the AIDS epidemic. It is for these reasons that the trailer is so brilliant, where dramatic snippets against foot-stomping Queen songs promise everything you could ever hope for. The film ends with Malek embodying Mercury’s vivaciousness in a recreated Live Aid concert, one of the most impressive Queen performances in music history (rewatching the original on YouTube after the film shows how painstaking it was to recreate it). The acting is fantastic and the cinematography is beautiful, but the film stuffs so much into its 135 minutes that we’re not quite sure what to walk away with.
The film feels like a flimsy tower of details, tied together by Mercury’s legacy, and made by those who love him. It is too multifaceted. The creators’ evident admiration of Freddie Mercury causes them to portray every facet of his persona when interacting with the media, his audience, his producers, his lovers, his family, his bandmates, and himself. This is a film made by and for Queen fans created with so much love for Freddie Mercury that it disguises the film’s less than stellar foundation. It took a few weeks since I saw the film for me to figure out why I wasn’t impressed—why I walked out feeling that the music was brilliant but wondering where everything else went wrong.
I argue that Bohemian Rhapsody is decent, not a great or even a good film, but I’d still recommend a go at it. Do I dare rate it three stars? It might turn you away from a film with really spectacular acting. Rami Malek plays a stunning Freddie Mercury against Gwilym Lee’s Brian May, Ben Hardy’s Roger Taylor, and Joseph Mazzello’s John Deacon. The film wants to be a recreated, romanticized history of Freddie Mercury and Queen, of one man’s complicated relationship to himself, who he thinks he is, and who he wants to be, but doesn’t quite get there.
We move from Mercury’s biological family to his self-made Queen family to his performance persona to his intimate relationships to his contraction of AIDS and finally to the Live Aid concert. That’s a lot to pack in, and without enough time spent on each, it’s not enough to distract from its clichéd script. Still, if you’ve ever wanted to escape your family, you’ll relate to how Parsi immigrant Farrokh Bulsara feels about not fitting his family’s vision and flying onto the stage as Freddie Mercury. If you’ve made and lost friends, you’ll understand the Queen band members who insist they’re family regardless of the troubles that divide them. If you’ve ever felt marginalized, you will understand Mercury’s initial reluctance to embrace his homosexuality. If you’re an artist, then you’ll understand Mercury’s flamboyance on stage, his fashion, and his unwavering aesthetic vision. And if you are a Queen fan, you will inevitably find enjoyment in anything so saturated with Queen music and leave the theater relistening to their Greatest Hits album anyways.
Let’s be clear: the film is a dramatization, not a documentary, like how The Imitation Game dramatizes a LGBT icon but with historical inaccuracies to suit the story’s message. For example, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, two years after the Live Aid concert, but in the film, this is moved to before the Live Aid concert to create artificial tension before Live Aid. The more troubling result is that this change suggests that AIDS is a direct consequence from Mercury’s clubbing life, which is treated with such derision in the film that it feels like a critical look at a major aspect of gay culture.
When Mercury isn’t on stage, Malek imbues his character with a welcome gentleness. Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), Freddie Mercury’s first love, ex-fiancee, and subject of the song “Love of My Life” comments on how different Mercury is and how she loves the way he moves. In a touching interaction, Mercury quietly says he’s bisexual when Mary tells him he’s gay. Mercury stares at her in mingled surprise and relief. The two remain close friends in real life, but in the second half of the film, Austin is used as a plot device to pull Mercury back to his senses (returning to the band and no longer spending his days in frivolous clubbing and drunken parties), just as Hutton is used as his moral compass. Their deep friendships and relationships with Mercury go unexplored and his exploration of his identity is glossed over.
What about the music? The film begins with Freddie Bulsara joining Brian May and Roger Taylor’s band, Smile, after their lead singer quits. Propelling their band into stardom, the band, newly dubbed Queen by Freddie who also changes his last name to Mercury, is brought to life through impeccable lip-syncing and the charismatic physicality of Malek’s performances. The titular song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is first presented as a defiant escape from everything, an artistic blending of opera into pop and rock that was expected to be a radio flop, but by the end, it becomes a soliloquy from a man who has resigned himself to his AIDS death sentence (Mercury croons, “I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy”).
So when “Bohemian Rhapsody” asks, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” we can see this film as a cross between both, as most films are estranged from their truth as they become fantasy. If this film wasn’t a derisive script hidden behind flamboyant blazers and mild amusements, we wouldn’t have to leave it all behind and face the truth: this cannot be the definitive Freddie Mercury biopic.