While Bryan Singer's biopic takes some uncomfortable liberties with Freddie Mercury's life, Malek's eye-catching performance elevates the proceedings into a rocking ride.
In a pivotal scene in Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) tells his manager and future lover, Paul (Allen Leech) that he doesn’t know who he really is, he just has “the idea of Freddie Mercury.” The idea of identity is a thread that weaves through the fabric of Bryan Singer’s biopic of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury – a stylish, but slightly overbaked musical drama that eventually decides no one knows who Freddie Mercury really is, not even himself.
Bohemian Rhapsody follows Queen from its formation in the 70s to their rise in the seventies to their slump in the eighties, ending with their legendary set at Live Aid. However, while Singer’s film is ostensibly about the band and not its lead singer, the focus is entirely on Mercury , never framing the other members of the band outside their relationship with him. Making Mercury – arguably the most famous front man in rock history- the center was an inevitable and wise decision, as trying to focus on all the bandmates would have muddled the story.
Fittingly, the film hinges on Malek’s performance as Mercury, and he is a triumph. While no one could take Mercury’s place, Malek has a charisma and a stage presence that mimics the late singer’s ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. Bohemian Rhapsody is at its best when the fictional Queen is performing: the performances themselves elevate Rhapsody above your average musical biopic. You can see the joy in Malek’s face as he swaggers and swings his microphone around the stage and the satisfaction he gets from being adored. The campiness of Malek’s stage presence is contrasted with his more vulnerable moments; in scenes with Prenter, Malek demonstrates a quiet, compelling intensity.
While putting the focus on Mercury gives the film more structure, it makes the rest of the band seem more like one-note background players than the talented and dynamic individuals they actually are. Of the bandmates, bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello, aka Little Timmy from Jurassic Park) seems to get the short end of the stick, interactions with the bandmates mostly playing out between Mercury, drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) with Deacon doing little more than being an ascended extra.(This is most likely due to the fact that May and Taylor are executive producers for the film, which brings up questions of the lens by which Mercury’s story is being told.). Both Mazzello and Lee do well in their roles, though with May being the voice of reason, and Deacon not being much of anything, the actors aren’t given material to elevate their performances above passable. Taylor is the most memorable of the bandmates, partially due to Hardy’s performance, but also because of the way the film presents his anger at Paul Prenter and his feelings of being left out of the band’s energy.
Freddie’s relationship with Paul takes up most of the film’s second act, and it’s obvious that the filmmakers (most definitely influenced by May and Taylor) view him as Queen’s Yoko. While it’s understandable that the film needs an antagonistic force for conflict, the way the film treats Paul and Freddie’s relationship is problematic, specifically when the film’s perspective on homosexuality is confusingly heteronormative. Throughout the second act of the film, it is implied that Freddie’s life is empty because he is unmarried and childless, in contrast to his happy and contented heterosexual bandmates. Freddie and Paul’s relationship is presented as toxic, while showing him as having a healthy relationship with Mary Austin (Laura Boynton).
It may be unfair to blame this entirely on homophobia, since in real life Freddie described Mary as the love of his life, and the poor portrayal of Paul probably comes more from the bandmates’ disdain for him than anything else. The film ends with Freddie starting a healthy relationship with hairdresser Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), which is nice, but it feels absurdly rushed. While I doubt the questionable politics of the film are intentional (especially since it’s directed by Singer), the film’s ostensible theme of forging your own identity is brushed under the rug by some questionable characterization. Bohemian Rhapsody presents Freddie Mercury as someone who isn’t honest about himself and who hides behind his persona. It’s an interesting concept, but while the film brings it up, it doesn’t seem interested in exploring why he may be like this; instead, Singer presents it as a character flaw. The film condemns his rejection of his Parsi heritage and bisexuality, but apart from a few token acknowledgments, it doesn’t explore why Mercury would want to hide those aspects of himself to a racist and homophobic world. Hollywood failing to explore the systemic aspect of bigotry is nothing new, but when a movie only displays the gay world as toxic until 30 minutes before the end of a 135-minute film, it is a little suspect.
Ignoring the politics and lackluster development for the rest of Queen, Rhapsody does manage to find a way to shine as a glitzy musical biopic. It doesn’t feel its 135-minute run time, and Singer keeps things fresh by interspersing surrealistic musical interludes between the more realistic dramatic scenes. But it’s Queen’s iconic performance at Live Aid that anchors the film in an awesome sense of musical majesty. It is twenty minutes of high energy that makes you feel like you’re watching a real rock concert. Malek and crew do a great job channeling Queen’s exuberant stage presence, and it’s so enrapturing that it will almost make you forget the film’s flaws.
Bohemian Rhapsody will not please all of Queen’s fans, especially those who demand total accuracy. However, it will be a big hit for moviegoers more interested in Queen’s showmanship than learning the real story of the band’s rise and fall. Just remember to read up on the real Freddie Mercury’s life, take the veracity of the film’s story with a grain of salt, and get ready to do the fandango.
Bohemian Rhapsody has a devil put aside for you in theaters everywhere.