Queen was a band whose music defined an entire generation, and over the years their popularity never would die down. But between every album there was a whole lot more that came along the way especially given how fascinating a subject like Freddie Mercury is. Beloved by many, and also having established himself as one of the most recognizable queer icons in history, trying to make a biopic about their history was always going to be a difficult subject to tackle and to say the least, a film like Bohemian Rhapsody only tries to go so far. But “trying” can only get you somewhere, because that’s one way of describing where everything had gone wrong with Bohemian Rhapsody. If you’re already thinking of many of the most influential bands of all time, whether it be generation-defining names like The Beatles or Nirvana, you’d already imagine that there would be many tensions coming along the way – and Queen weren’t saints in that same regard either. But there comes a point where you’re looking at a story about a band struggling to remain together as difficult as their relationships may be and outright lying to the audience through the obvious favouring of many members over the other. And unfortunately, Bohemian Rhapsody happens to be the latter.
We all know how biopics of this sort find their footing, first with a moment of reflection upon how the band came together before signing their first record label. It’s one among many music biopic tropes that were parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but that’s besides the point – because it seems even dismissive of Queen’s own members in that regard. It’s dismissive of Queen’s own members in that sense the recognizable leader Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) isn’t even made out to be the sort of person that his icon status would be recognized as such, which would be fine, yet the straying away from the truth for the purpose of dramatic onscreen effect only demonizes him to a point you’re wondering how much of this is even true. From first moment to last, you can already feel how heavily involved Brian May and Roger Taylor were involved with bringing this story to the screen because of the fact they’re the ones who are portrayed as the saints of the group, and yet the bassist John Deacon, who retired long ago, is portrayed like an idiot who only follows command. It came to a point I was even questioning how much of this really read off as a film about Queen’s history and how much of this felt like fan fiction about how every Queen member was the greatest ever, because the more it sat in my head I kept leaning towards the latter.
To get the obvious out of the way, Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury is a stunner, perhaps the very best thing to come out of a film that “sticks to the formula,” in the words of Mike Myers’s character (get it, because he was a huge fan of the song in Wayne’s World). That’s the ironic thing about a film about a band like Queen, whose popularity had been built up from the fact that they had always been so extravagant for never sticking to the formula – and Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury embodies every bit of that. From this alone to the recreation of the Live Aid concert which makes up the climax of the film, all of the good qualities about Bohemian Rhapsody shine so brightly because of how much they embody the very spirit of what Queen had celebrated for the many generations that have followed. Of course, the music is always fun to listen to because you can only ever expect so much to come out from a film about Queen, so Rami Malek’s vocal performances as he tries to evoke Freddie Mercury show a sense of an admirable effort because of how it’s difficult enough to match up to an extravagant personality like that of Freddie Mercury. Yet these good qualities can only go so far.
From watching a biopic like this, one can only watch their stories expecting to learn something new about a familiar subject and yet Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t stretch itself beyond a Wikipedia page – even sanitizing the material at that too. It’s a film that seems more indebted to how great Queen were, if the involvement of May and Taylor didn’t already say enough, rather than the difficulties that they’ve faced especially with the egos of the band members from one to the other. Yet ironically, ego would perfectly describe what this film reeks of, it seems more like a stroke of ego from May and Taylor’s ends because even though they’re nowhere near the center of this film the fact that they make themselves out to be the most morally trustworthy of the group, yet Mercury is often demonized for giving Queen the very face that they’ve been recognized for. It shouldn’t be an issue that May and Taylor aren’t at the center for a film that’s all about Freddie Mercury’s rise to stardom. And yet it only glares at its own audience because of how it seems so eager to stroke that ego on their end too because of how we focus on Freddie’s own flaws as a human being too – which shouldn’t be bad enough as is, yet it does.
Sanitization of such a subject can only take the film somewhere, because it only ever feels like it tiptoes around Freddie Mercury’s promiscuity only to engage with it as if it were exactly what killed him. And by approaching it in that manner, it also comes off as being rather vaguely homophobic too. It’s bad enough from moments in which you deal with Freddie’s own lovers, Mary Austin and Jim Hutton – first from the tone-deaf addressing of Freddie’s bisexuality (turning into outright denial) and the awkward encounters that led up to Freddie’s first relationship. As bad as it is that the film doesn’t ever delve into Freddie’s sexuality in this regard by tiptoeing around it as a means of maintaining the PG-13 rating, it also fulfills a hateful stereotype describing bisexual people. Going more into detail, Jim Hutton does not even have a substantial amount of screen time but of course, their first encounter is changed from meeting in a bar to a house party – and they fall in love through a drunken grope. Parallels to director Bryan Singer’s personal life are hard to ignore in this instance, especially given his history of sexual abuse towards minors, but it’s also home to where one of the most problematic aspects of the film arises, because the film later antagonizes the men who looked up to Freddie in this regard for being so open about their own sexuality in the meantime.
I think it would be fair enough to say that the film already went far enough from trying to turn Freddie’s AIDS diagnosis into a plot device, rather than show it as an issue that affected numerous people who were given a voice through Freddie. But how do you make all of this even possible, from changing history by having Queen perform at the Live Aid even though the diagnosis was not made official until afterward. It felt like a cheap move to get audiences feeling for Freddie Mercury reaching a low point of his life, because the concert was anything but that for him. If the film could put so much time to recreating that climactic concert through a series of televised images, then what was the point of changing such a drastic detail and the very motivation if the disease could have already weakened Freddie’s body by the time he performs? It’s one thing I’m trying to wrap my head around, but then you have the film’s demonization of a culture that Mercury gave a voice to, for Freddie only ever seems to be pushed away by many through his own gay lifestyle – as if that wasn’t even the most homophobic viewpoint that one could already take from a subject like such.
The more this film sits in my head, the angrier I get – because this is not the film that Freddie Mercury deserved after so long. This barely qualifies as a Queen film, because it only ever feels at most like fan fiction with their greatest hits being played in the background without ever having anything to say about them as a band. But having their music in the background only reminds me how much I would rather actually be listening to a Queen album if I were still going to pay tribute to them now. If you filtered out all the most interesting aspects of Freddie Mercury’s lifestyle as a means of appeasing straight audiences through vague homophobia, this film is exactly what you would get. It’s a film that feels so ironically formulaic for a film about a band that wanted to change the formula. It’s a film that feels so homophobic for a film all about a queer icon. It’s a film that doesn’t even echo any sense of character for a film about a band like Queen. Because I don’t think I can say it any other way, this simply is not a Queen film.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Bryan Singer
Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
Produced by Graham King, Jim Beach
Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers
Release Date: November 2, 2018
Running Time: 134 minutes