It is always a curiosity when star and a star vehicle are at odds. Sometimes this is because a performer does not gel with the material, but in the case of Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, it is due to his vast surpassing of it—like a shooting star leaping through the sky. With the responsibility of portraying Freddie Mercury, one of the undisputed musical geniuses of the 20th century, what he achieves is less a performance and more an act of necromancy. For it is some kind of magic trick when he conjures the spirit of Queen’s lead singer before our eyes, which will be more than enough for audiences who want to relive the music and brilliance of a man who thought the best way to view his glam rock scribblings was as a “night at the opera.”
Hence the jarring contrast when the rest of the movie is just another night at the movies. And to Bryan Singer’s credit, at least as a filmmaker, it is by design no more and no less than that. Despite whisperings of behind-the-scenes conflicts worthy of an aggressive Brian May guitar solo, nothing that messy (or dramatic) ever appears on screen. This is instead exactly what it sets out to be: a formulaic and comfortable trip down jukebox memory lane, with nary a ballad or crescendo ignored. The life story it purports to tell, however, has been so whitewashed and and scrubbed of controversy that one imagines Mercury, either the man or Malek’s approximation, would be as unimpressed as all the other empty pop culture products he scolds in “Bicycle Race.”
With the dutiful pacing of a forgotten Behind the Music episode, Bohemian Rhapsody tracks Freddie from his earliest days as Farrokh Bulsara, a British immigrant working at Heathrow, to the heights of Queen’s second act at Live Aid, a 1985 concert that remains still the most watched musical event in history. Along the way, we view how the British singer hustled his way to being the front man of a neighborhood band that included Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and got them to change their name to Queen. Like everything in the film, it is with the softest ease that lifetime milestones pile up for Freddie: he meets a girl named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who in spite of his well-documented bisexuality is depicted as the love of his life; his band finds management from John Reid (Aidan Gillen) and then Jim Beach (Tom Hollander); and soon Malek is strutting with maximum style into writing a six-minute masterpiece like “Bohemian Rhapsody” with barely even a glance toward what might’ve been the inspiration or drive for his brilliance.
In essence, Bohemian Rhapsody is a greatest hits album wrapped in the same package that moviegoers received for Ray, Walk the Line, Beyond the Sea, and Jersey Boys (it’s lesser than the first two but far superior to the latter). Everything is so generic about its setup of band members smilingly discussing what will quickly become Queen’s next number one hit that the only thing to mark the passage of time in the film is the type of wigs—or in Freddie’s case, moustaches—upon which the actors are adorned. The artifice of this type of gloss is even more pronounced if you’ve seen Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard, a wicked scene-by-scene deconstruction of this type of autopilot storytelling.
One imagines that as the film has the blessing and support of the living members of Queen that there was a mandate to smooth any edges, but what is surprising is how little importance the rest of Queen has. Save for an admittedly giddy creation myth for the recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as well as a more believable one for “We Will Rock You,” the bandmates float in and out of the picture based solely on the beats of when Freddie needs them and when he needs to exude hubris by trying to outgrow them via going solo (it doesn’t stick). Beyond Freddie himself, the only two major parts belong to Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), Freddie’s personal manager who is depicted as a vampire-demon leaching off the singer, and Boynton, who indeed makes a winsome muse, as she did in the far more rocking Sing Street, although here she underwrites the romance with a despairing sadness as she slowly realizes her fiancé is gay.
It is unfortunately left almost exclusively to Boynton to spell that out, however, as Bohemian Rhapsody treats Freddie’s sexuality with all the sensitivity of a 1930s producer trying to skirt the Hays Code censors. More than alleged backstage wrangling, the biggest visible failing of the movie comes from a choice made long before cameras rolled. In a bid for commercial appeal, Freddie’s sexuality is barely addressed in the film. Its inference is instead left to merely guilty looks as he considers cheating on Mary on the road, and then living a decadent lifestyle after breaking up and accepting his sexuality—while still never visually indulging in it beyond hitting on an unimpressed waiter. In fact, other than an unwanted kiss from Paul, who is coded as a kind of femme fatale interested in luring Freddie away from Mary purely for monetary gain, it is not until the last 20 minutes that Freddie’s preference for men is seriously addressed with any level of intimacy.
Admittedly, such issues will always lend themselves to a delicate sensitivity, particularly given Freddie’s far-too-early death resulting from AIDS complications. In a sense, I am sure it feels better (and easier) to err on unchallenging terrain than risk delving into a lifestyle that was belittled and misconstrued by homophobes after Freddie’s passing.
But when even Freddie’s early battle with AIDS gets sandblasted of any gruesomeness or sincere introspection, the more apparent truth is that the movie is a calculated product. One that realizes more hit songs and fewer scenes actually addressing the complexities of Freddie’s life, never mind his death, sells tickets. Ironically, this exact same commercial caution is acutely satirized during the film’s best sequence. In the lead-up to the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a fictional record producer played by an unrecognizable and mugging Mike Myers cannot fathom how this could ever be played on the radio, much less enjoyed by teenage boys banging their heads in a car. Ah, but it’s a new world, Wayne. His cowardice becomes a running joke in the film, as Queen ascends musical Everest twice before coming back together, in spite of fights, grudges, and even HIV, to play a concert viewed by more than one-third of the world’s population. And yet, the film itself doesn’t have the confidence and swagger to build to anything so grand or defiantly outside-the-box.
Malek’s Freddie is a musical biopic performance for the ages, but the film he’s trapped in is the three-minute radio edit that the character and real songwriter would have never settled for.
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