In a May 1981 interview with Melody Maker, the whimsical, waggish frontman of British rock band Queen described he and his maestro mates’ approach to a career in music, to beginning the journey that would make them one of the most revered rock groups in history.
“It’s my work, and I’m very serious about it, getting it right,” said Freddie Mercury. “When we began, we approached it the way we did because we were not prepared to be out-of-work musicians, ever. We said either take it on as a serious commodity or don’t do it at all.”
If only director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Anthony McCarten had availed themselves of Mercury’s mentality in creating Bohemian Rhapsody, a watered-down and formulaic biopic that does a disservice to the subject whose vibrancy and vivacity it’s designed to honor: the exuberant, overflowing-with-charisma, unmatched-in-his-four-octave-range Mercury, who here often feels not like the Mister Fahrenheit or gravity-defying tiger of “Don’t Stop Me Now” but like the little silhouette-o of a man as described in the track for which the film is named.
That’s no shot fired at Rami Malek, the actor of Mr. Robot fame who offers a career-affirming performance as Mercury — one that also has potential to be career-altering, as magic mist of Academy Award nomination chatter has encircled the actor in an increasingly tight manner the longer Bohemian Rhapsody has been on the cinematic radar. Having pored over archival footage of the singer-songwriter, absorbing the sundry nuances of Mercury’s stage presence and sterling spirit through taped concert performances and past interviews and so much more provided to him by surviving Queen members and Bohemian Rhapsody executive producers Brian May and Roger Taylor, Malek gets it all impossibly right: the liquidity and the litheness of Mercury’s body, the hip-swaying and shoulder-shimming he showed off live in concert, the lip-licking and the cheek-sucking he often did mid-speech or when punctuating a point, the vacillation between brazen confidence and fear of loneliness, the insecurity that pricked at his mind when he was young Farrokh Bulsara living in Zanzibar, Freddie Bulsara working as a luggage handler in London’s Heathrow Airport, and still as Freddie Mercury, the performer he knew he was always meant to be.
Prosthetic teeth and a masterful mixing of his voice, Mercury’s own, and that of Canadian Mercury soundalike Marc Martel aid in Malek’s endeavor to make the audience believe every “ay-oh” and “I want, I want, I want” is actually spilling out from his lips, but everything else — the flowery fluidness, the attitude, the emotion — is all thanks to Malek’s talents and his intense dedication to the role. Even as Mercury spins away in his own self-made, self-destructive world before returning to his family (the Queen boys and his parents and younger sister in London) in the third act of Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek keeps things grounded — well, as grounded as they possibly can be in a film of this kind.
It’s not a hit toward the ensemble cast either. Lucy Boynton is a golden joy as Mary Austin, Mercury’s long-time friend, one-time fiancee, and the eventual beneficiary of his fortune following his death in November 1991. Gwilym Lee is the spitting image of a young Brian May, the lead guitarist for Queen who gave Mercury playful pushback in always wanting rewrites but never stopped viewing him as a brother, and Ben Hardy delivers a bang-on turn as drummer Roger Taylor, the man responsible for ensuring teenagers bang their heads to Queen’s music on beat. Even Joseph Mazzello, whose slight stiffness portraying bassist John Deacon in the ‘70s does eventually melt into a charming performance in the ‘80s, impresses. (Viewers may shed a shared tear with Mazzello’s Deacon during a scene just before the film’s big, out-with-a-bang closer.)
The collection of actors — which also features a smartly cast Aidan Gillen as former Queen manager John Reid, Tom Hollander as the hard-to-hate lawyer-turned-manager Jim “Miami” Beach, and Aaron McCusker as Jim Hutton, one of the most important people in Mercury’s life who, woefully, gets very little screen time — are superb and serve as the perfect complement to Malek’s Mercury. But, as dramatizations of real events and real people tend to be, they’re not exactly life-like in Bohemian Rhapsody. Queen and company — including Boynton’s Austin, who comes across most authentic, even in her under-baked moments and diminished presence post-separation from Mercury — have their nuances glossed over, their personalities somewhat washed out.
And it definitely isn’t a crack at what’s undeniably the greatest part of Bohemian Rhapsody, and the driving force behind the ticket sales so far and the revenue still to be made: the foot-stomping tunes that provide markers for each era of Queen, and the enchanting concluding scene that recreates the band’s history-making 20-minute set at 1985’s dual-venue benefit concert Live Aid. Those uninitiated in the hypnotic nature of Queen’s music (people who I, personally, can’t believe exist) will be made fans by the time the credits roll, and those who have dreamt of walking down the aisle to “Love of My Life” or sobbed tears of triumph to “We Are the Champions” will feel as if they’re hearing songs they memorized long ago for the very first time. Bohemian Rhapsody succeeds in spinning the records to uphold the musical side of its structure, but it’s the space around the tracks — the true-story-telling aspect of the musical biopic — that crumbles.
The origin of every tiny problem present in Bohemian Rhapsody can be traced back to the script. It’s shallow — never breaking past an artificial veneer, a lacquer, into the veracities of Mercury’s life, into what really went on in his beautiful, brilliant brain. Sure, we get a taste of the racist remarks lobbed his way, the prejudiced statements made to his face and behind his back, and, maybe most importantly, the complexities of his sexuality. But McCarten’s screenplay only ever props itself up against those things, alludes to them, taps them on the shoulder before turning on its heel to face something else, something perhaps more palatable for the masses. It’s also too tidy — playing out exactly the way one would expect a biopic about a band and its lead singer to. For some, it might even be tacky at times, particularly in its dialogue, which includes one cringeworthy back-and-forth between Malek’s Mercury and Boynton’s Austin. (“Say hi to the boys for me,” she says from one end of the phone as the camera shows Mercury sizing up a man walking into a restroom. “I will,” he responds.)
And regarding Mercury’s sexuality, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t so much drop the ball as avoid picking it up in the first place. The film is heavy on highlighting Mercury’s heterosexual relationship (though less so after Mercury and Austin go their separate ways following his admission of his bisexuality in the mid-1970s) all the while tentative to explore his actual, documented queerness in the way many feel it should have been registered. His identity as a bisexual man — which biographer Lesley-Ann Jones has affirmed Mercury “clearly” was, and which Queen’s management (and seemingly the rest of the world) wouldn’t allow to be taken as truth — is stripped away when Austin states “you’re gay, Freddie” in the moments before the couple ends their engagement. His relationships with Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and especially Jim Hutton, the man whom Mercury would spend the final years of his life before passing due to complications from AIDS at the age of 45, are depicted ambiguously — as if Singer and McCarten made a conscious decision to present just enough information for audiences to independently arrive at conclusions about Mercury’s sexuality so they wouldn’t have to make those statements themselves.
How Bohemian Rhapsody displays Mercury’s sexual identity is, ironically, exactly the same as the way in which Mercury once argued his drug-doling, information-withholding manager Paul Prenter knows him: Paul only sees of Mercury what he wants to notice, and Bohemian Rhapsody only shows of the rock god what Singer and McCarten want to offer. In both cases, it’s not the whole picture, only a slice of the truth that is terrific and tragic in the same breath.
It isn’t as though Bohemian Rhapsody completely neglected Mercury’s queerness. Rather, the film soft-pedaled it — sanitized it. And that’s even worse.
Much like Mercury’s home at 12 Stafford Terrace, the Kensington abode into which the singer moved after ending his romantic relationship with Austin, Bohemian Rhapsody is hollow, echoey in a distressing way that evokes the bitter sting of nostalgia and the longing for what isn’t there and what may never come. Its cavernous corners and vacant hallways beg to be filled with something of substance — furniture, actual friends who won’t fuck him over, and two handfuls of philanderers in Mercury’s case; a stronger, more raw, less paint-by-the-numbers story and a more apparent care for the music icon’s life and legacy in the film’s.
As a longtime Queen fan, I felt an ache in my chest for Mercury and his memory. More than Queen faithfuls, the one-of-a-kind talent deserved a blue-chip biopic. Sadly, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t it.