Review: Rami Malek is a Magnetic Freddie Mercury, But ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Can’t Make Up Its Mind About His Identity or His Legacy
Let me say a few things first: I adore Freddie Mercury, partially because of his Parsi heritage (as an Iranian, I just automatically identify with any of my people), and mostly because of what seemed like his wild and uncontrollable and deeply feeling spirit. Could any actor really capture that essence, those layers of identity? Rami Malek does in Bohemian Rhapsody, but this is in spite of the film, not because of it.
The script is underdone, the characters are underdeveloped, and the entire thing feels like the members of Queen who were involved in the film—guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor; bassist John Deacon abstained—lobbing grievances at Mercury, who of course can’t defend himself because he died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991. Mercury partied too much! Mercury was a drama queen! Mercury was simultaneously obsessive and lazy! Mercury almost tore the band apart because of his gayness! With every moment that the film praises and acknowledges Mercury for his bombastic personality and his grand musical ideas, it also backtracks, making clear that the other members of Queen were there too, you guys. It just comes off as, well, whiny.
I haven’t said anything about Bryan Singer yet because really, what is there to say at this point? He abandoned the project midway through, after fighting with Malek onset. For some reason, he is still the only accredited director on this project, although being fired by 20th Century Fox and although Dexter Fletcher (who gets an executive producer credit here) stepped in to finish the job. The movie’s directing is, to be gentle, unremarkable; this is standard biopic fare, with the only real tour de force staging being the Live Aid performance, but even that is overshadowed by a narrative choice that soaks the performance in tragedy.
The screenplay from Anthony McCarten (who also wrote The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour) does a lot of that—rearranging key parts of Mercury’s and Queen’s history and taking these gigantic narrative leaps that seem like checking off boxes rather than building a story. Here are the members of Queen. Here they are on tour. Here they are making an album. Here they are fighting. Here is their Live Aid performance. There’s no real rhythm here … and yet.
And yet, I wept during a few scenes in particular and throughout the entire Live Aid sequence; I was moved by the film’s tricks. I blame that on Malek, on the way he veers between self-indulgence and vulnerability, on the look on his face when he learned that other people’s lives are moving on without him, on the way his body seemed to collapse when embraced with a hug by his strict and conservative father. All that stuff is good! But the characters, and Mercury in particular, are treated like paper dolls. Their outfits are often gorgeous and their depth is shallow.
Bohemian Rhapsody begins with preparation for the 1985 Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium and moves backward, to when Freddie Mercury was Farrokh Bulsara, a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport who is the recipient of constant casual racism from coworkers who call him a Paki and whose family doesn’t seem to understand what he wants or who he is. When he tells his father that he is going by Freddie now, it’s a definitive shift, and it continues when Freddie puts himself out there, offers to be the new lead singer of the band Smile, with guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and befriends a beautiful boutique employee named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton).
Fast-forward a year, when the band, now named Queen, has been joined by bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello, giving excellent stank face), is touring regularly, and is growing more famous. Fast-forward even more time, when the band has completed the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” and spars with label EMI because of their refusal to release the song as a single. And then Freddie starts exploring his sexuality, choices shrouded in sideways looks and secretive rendezvous and tabloid rumors, and then Bohemian Rhapsody becomes something else, a movie that starts vilifying Mercury and walks right up to the line of saying, “Well, he got HIV because of his own bad choices and his out-of-control gayness, obviously.”
The movie doesn’t downplay Mercury’s queerness, I don’t think, but it does portray his sexuality as something that was tearing Mercury apart and negatively affecting the band, and that’s pretty crappy! And it fails as a storytelling choice because while Bohemian Rhapsody effectively gives us Freddie Mercury as a performer, it doesn’t really give us the man. Why did he spar with his parents? Why was he trying to escape his Parsi and Zoroastrian identities by changing his name? Why did he choose to then tap into Islamic culture with the use of “Bismillah” (translated from Arabic as “in the name of God,” the first words in the Quran) in “Bohemian Rhapsody”? What inspired his songs? What made him fall in love with Mary, and what caused his lifelong devotion to her? Why did he have so many damn cats? None of those motivations are really explored because too many scenes are May and Taylor telling Freddie to “slow down” and watch himself, all settled with their families and their kids and looking judgmentally upon Freddie’s lifestyle, as if the only parts of being gay were rampant drug and alcohol use, casual sex, and partying. I’m sorry, but this was the 1970s and the 1980s. The presentation of the other members of Queen as calm and responsible family men while Freddie raged feels just a little disingenuous.
… And yet. There are so many songs in the film (“Love of My Life,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” to name a few), because of course the band would only license those songs to a film that abided by their narrative requirements, and as a Queen fan you’ll rejoice to hear them; I saw the movie in Dolby and the sound was exquisite. “Who Wants to Live Forever” plays during a not-at-all nuanced scene but is emotionally quite impactful; my theater broke into song during “We Are the Champions.” But the camaraderie built by those songs is undercut by so many of the film’s choices, how often it seems to blame Freddie, how superficially it presents his persona. “We’re four misfits who don’t belong together playing to all the other misfits,” Freddie says at one point, but Bohemian Rhapsody never makes you feel that sentiment. Malek is a revelation, but his performance feels wasted in a movie that can’t decide if it wants to honor Freddie Mercury or punish him.
Header Image Source: 20th Century Fox/Epk.tv
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