Long Live [the] Queen
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is baroque and evocative thanks almost entirely to Rami Malek’s phenomenal performance. He may not look like Freddie Mercury but when you see him move, you can almost believe that he is Freddie. The plot itself is formulaic rockstar biopic and that is ironic considering the scenes in which members of the band rail against following record-industry routine. It’s an enjoyable journey, though, with the performance scenes being particular highlights. Freddie’s sexuality plays a big role here. Yet a lot of Freddie Mercury’s story goes untold here, but we do get the broad strokes. Rami Malek nails Freddie Mercury’s trademark overbite, elegantly feral stage delivery and posh accent.
The movie rushes through his first encounters of what would eventually become Queen. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor (Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy) helped produce the movie, and because John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) didn’t, the latter gets considerably less screen time.
The early scenes of creative collaboration and show-business rise are thrilling and there is a wonderful scene with a fictional record exec (Mike Myers) who doesn’t want to release the band’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” masterpiece. The film juxtaposes the band’s touring success with graphic excerpts from negative reviews of the song.
The tale’s most fractured area involves Freddie’s mercurial sex life. It shows his relationship with early girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) at the expense of his eventual gay identity. Mary was very important to Freddie (she inherited most of his estate), but this overly sanitized film relies on the kind of demonic depiction of gay subculture we became used to seeing not so long ago essentially blaming his eventual AIDS diagnosis on his unhealthy moral choices.
A lot is crammed into the period leading up to Queen’s genuinely triumphant turn at Live Aid, in 1985. That gig, beautifully restaged here, is depicted as a strained reunion, although the band never actually broke up.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a reductive cinematic portrayal of a legendary pop-cultural figure. The film is a flashy yet a shallow overview of Queen Freddie Mercury’s life from his days working as a luggage handler at Heathrow Airport, while living at home in London with his conservative immigrant Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti and Meneka Das), to famously stealing the show on stage at Live Aid, a massive concert organized as a fundraiser for famine relief in Africa in 1985. And while the film’s conclusion is an impressively intricate and deeply moving recreation of the band’s iconic performance at Live Aid, the scenes leading up to the show are ultimately plagued by a sense of each narrative and artistic choice being the safest one available.
Queen’s meteoric rise to prominence is cross-cut throughout the film with the development of Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin who goes from being his would-be bride to his close friend following the revelation of his homosexuality. And the film is at its most engaging when capturing how Mercury and his bandmates conceived some of their biggest hits in the studio. The playing out of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each of Queen’s members in relation to one another provides both narrative tension and a fascinating portrayal of artistic collaboration.
Mercury’s descent into a life of drugs, booze, and sexual excess is later depicted as the catalyst of Queen’s demise in the years prior to the Live Aid performance. The film seems almost embarrassed to include on-screen evidence of Mercury’s sexuality, as if eager to subtextually corroborate the stereotype of tragic queerness leading to tragic promiscuity leading to an inevitably tragic death. Suggestions of his homosexual desire are pushed into a single wistful glance at a rugged truck driver slinking into a public restroom and lavish representations of drug-fueled parties that are otherwise meant to demonstrate just how deeply into depravity Mercury had sunk. The news of his AIDS diagnosis is practically the only indication the audience gets that Mercury even had a sex life at all.
And while “Bohemian Rhapsody” does succeed in mapping out the most important touchstones of Mercury’s all-too-short life, it does so at the expense of many opportunities for depth of feeling. The minor characters are drawn two-dimensionally at best and are rushed through scenes simply to provide a sense of forward momentum rather than to add any particular nuance or inflection to the core narrative.
As the eventually insidious Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) Mercury’s personal manager during much of his career, who later sold incriminating personal information about the singer to the press, goes into a rage about the limitations of queer existence almost moving in the single scene in which he’s actually given space to perform, rather than to react.
The film mistakenly believes that simply moving through an overview of Mercury’s life will allow it to arrive at something approaching intimacy.