I already had a few misgivings before I even entered the theater to watch the Bryan Singer-directed Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Like homecoming, summer camp and school trips, band ruined the classic Queen song which inspired the film’s title. After playing it countless times in a stuffy uniform on a football field and hearing it sung on many a band trip, I no longer feel the joy that everyone else in the world seems to when they hear this song.
But most of my doubts stemmed from the promotion and backstory of this movie’s creation. As with most high-profile biopics, this project wreaked of ego and Oscar-pandering. Even worse, a battle of egos possibly resulted in behind-the-scenes drama. Singer and Rami Malek, who plays Mercury, reportedly clashed frequently, and Singer was ultimately replaced by Dexter Fletcher (with Singer still receiving the directing credit).
Unfortunately, the movie met my worst expectations. Before I rip the main performance to shreds, I want to make it clear that I admire Rami Malek’s talent and weird face. Okay, now I’ll trash his performance. Malek basically reduces a complicated, compelling figure into two cliche parts: a troubled genius and flamboyant glam rocker. The flamboyance makes for energetic concert performances that are hard not to love, but for the rest of the film, Malek’s portrayal is as exaggerated as those terrible prosthetic teeth.
As bad as the lead performance is (and really all the performances, which fall flat across the board), the most troubling aspect of this movie is its depictions of Mercury’s sexuality. If you worried the film was going to somehow straight-wash the story of a guy who performed in sequined jumpsuits and died of AIDs, don’t worry; his sexuality is firmly intact. But it will demonize his queerness throughout most of the movie.
Like many biopics, the film follows one of the protagonist’s long relationships. However, in this case it’s a complicated friendship between Mercury and Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), his ex-fiancee. This could’ve been a clever move on the movie’s part, demonstrating that the most impactful relationships in someone’s life aren’t always straightforward or all that romantic. But instead it’s almost positioned as a sign of what could have been.
Several scenes between Mercury and Austin play out romantically, and not just the ones that take place while they’re a couple. At one point, she drives away from him in the rain, leaving him with his abusive gay manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), and a gang of rowdy men. This and other moments strongly mimic break-up scenes that we commonly find in movies about straight relationships, and it seems as though his problems are the result of his inability to romantically connect with a woman. While his straight band mates and former lover seem happy and stable in their traditional lifestyles of marriage and nuclear families, Mercury falls into deep depression and drug abuse because his lifestyle is just too gay, or at least that’s what the movie seems to think.
I almost breathed a sigh of relief when the film finally showed Mercury in a happy relationship with another man, but by then, the damage was done. There are ways to portray the difficulties of being a queer person in a heterosexist world without vilifying LGBT culture, but the film failed at striking that balance.
Stephanie and I spent a pretty long time after the screening listing out our complaints. However, we couldn’t deny that we somewhat enjoyed this film. After all, it’s Queen. Regardless of how bad the movie is, there’s no way to watch it without tapping your foot or getting a song stuck in your head—especially when you get to the last 15-ish minutes. It concludes with a re-creation of Queen’s performance at Live Aid, which captures the energy of the band and the massive crowd. It’s a cheap trick. I couldn’t help but enjoy this electric concert, but it’s an unearned triumph for a subpar story. Plus, there’s the whole issue of it being just a long redux of the original performance. Yeah, it’s cool to watch, but the Internet exists, so we can watch the real thing.
If the movie’s strength is its soundtrack of Queen’s greatest hits, one of its weaknesses is structuring the plot like a greatest hits album. Instead of deeply exploring the complicated relationship with his band, the suppression of his racial identity or his songwriting process, we get bits and pieces of all this, culminating in a disjointed story that’s no more revelatory than a Wikipedia entry. The movie’s also too focused on a cliche representation of Mercury to give supporting roles any time to shine, or even a competent story line.
Prior to the Live Aid event, Queen had fallen apart as a result of drama and swelled egos. It seems that Bohemian Rhapsody honored the band’s fall by letting backstage conflict turn the film into a mess.
Cake rating: Usually, our ratings are just dessert-related jokes about the movie, but in this case I really did follow Debbie’s example and purchased something sweet after leaving the theater. I had to stop by Walgreens anyway; might as well grab a pint of ice cream. Not exactly cake, but it’s dessert, so close enough. How else could I get over that bad Mike Myers cameo?
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