- Bohemian Rhapsody
- Directed by: Bryan Singer
- Written by: Anthony McCarten
- Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton and Ben Hardy
- Classification: PG-13
- 134 minutes
If one indulges one’s emergency stockpile of self-preservational optimism and wilful naïveté, the opening sequence of Bohemian Rhapsody can, with enough credulity, be interpreted as charming. Here we see the spellbindingly unparalleled late Queen singer Freddie Mercury at home amongst his cats, glamourously traipsing around in a bright floral robe.
As with the rest of Bryan Singer’s film, the biopic’s introduction lumbers along, unsure of whose gaze to pander to, eventually placing its bet on a close-up of Mercury’s signature mustache, the short, sharp trimmings of which fall into the bathroom sink. So obviously meant to convey intimacy, the scene comes off as gimmick – a quick laugh coasting on the simple recognition of a mustache, superficially acknowledging Mercury’s inner loneliness (the cats) and homosexuality (the robe), neither of which are ever worked through in a meaningful way.
With that, the disrespectful inelegance of the film’s idea of Mercury is made known from the start.
Played by Rami Malek, whose acting is at times wonderful but who is ultimately at the mercy of the script, Mercury’s character registers as a bombastic business negotiator, a capricious diva and an incoherent sexual morass. And it’s so, so sad, because this film could have and should been beautiful. Instead it plays out like an extended version of Saturday Night Live’s cowbell sketch.
By now it’s been well published that Bohemian Rhapsody inadequately, and perhaps homophobically, addresses Mercury’s sexuality. One could attempt the argument that the film’s apparent fear of being seen as a fully told queer narrative follows the trajectory of Mercury’s own coming-out process. (Mercury was at one time engaged to a woman, Mary Austin. The two broke up but remained soulmates.) Given the filmmakers’ consistently forceful heteronormativity, it seems likelier they were not equipped to reckon with the spectrum of queerness or that they just didn’t want to make this film too gay.
After Mercury died, of bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS, in November 1991, Austin scattered his ashes at a secret location, keeping her promise to not reveal the whereabouts. Much of Mercury’s fortune was left to her, a source of contention among his Queen bandmates. Austin made Mercury the godfather of her first child. Their relationship transcended labels, sexuality, circumstance and distance. Yet she is portrayed here by Lucy Boynton as a reluctant friend who only pops in when she’s obligated. As a result, when Mercury calls Austin “my love” throughout the film, it provides an impression of desperation and denial, instead of companionship and loyalty.
Mercury’s personal life aside, the story, rewritten by voices who’ve had it so easy their entire lives they can’t imagine anything being difficult, lacks a sense of struggle. When Queen guitarist Brian May gets the idea for We Will Rock You, he tells everyone in the studio to stomp their feet. Et voilà! A hit! So simple!
When the band visits their record label’s office to discuss the next album, Mercury ends a disagreement with EMI executive Ray Foster (Mike Myers) by putting out a cigarette on his desk. Mercury is domineering, but why? The audience is granted no further understanding, no exposition of autonomy or development, just trite rock-star clichés. The film’s press materials use the word “flamboyant” to describe Mercury, which is telling. But the viewer only sees him as arrogant.
Where the tactic of cloying familiarity does work, unlike in the opening sequence, is the ending, in which the audience watches a re-enactment of Queen’s hard-fought 1985 Live Aid reunion at Wembley Stadium. Here Malek plays Mercury brilliantly, at last allowing us to see him as dazzlingly complete. It’s not deep enough to be redemptive, but lasts long enough to feel satisfying, like having a dream about someone you miss.
In what is lost to revisionism, Bohemian Rhapsody becomes a testament to the importance of accurate historical preservation as a defence against erasure. For a film insistent upon getting the dramaturgically correct 1985 Pepsi logo into the frame, very little effort seems to have been applied to exactitude elsewhere. Freddie Mercury deserves better.
Bohemian Rhapsody opens Nov. 2