In the midst of Bryan Singer’s (with uncredited director Dexter Fletcher, who replaced Singer after his termination) “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I found myself tracing my footsteps as to where my affinity for Queen began. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I found myself gravitating towards the vehicular, bombastically animating sorcery that is the greatest frontman in musical history Freddie Mercury(Rami Malek), lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello). Perhaps it was birthed out of a rebellious attitude to my father’s fidelity of heavier metal bands like Kiss and Metallica, that my search for alternative tunes found a home in that of the anthemic, roaring majesty that is Queen. In that same swift retraction of musical rapport lives my confusion and discomfort from a film that struggles to grasp the roots of the enigma known as Freddie Mercury.
The creative process is a maddening theme to convey, the interior design of it all plays like a tough defense in which the few cracks of vulnerability to be found are quickly swallowed whole. It’s hard to match the grooves and puzzle pieces into something that matches that of a finished portrait replicating the innovativeness or pure genius of an artist. However, there is an outlined pathway to follow with films like “Ray” and “Walk The Line” acting like blueprints for those who may need some inspiration before drafting their work. But, Bryan Singer is not the man for the job, as crazy as it may seem.
That blatant dose of sarcasm aside, Singer and the man who replaced him merely reside on the periphery of Mercury and the band itself. He never truly delves into the man behind Freddie Mercury, the sexually confused Pakistan kid Farrokh Bulsara who transformed himself into this flamboyant amalgamation of mystification and effemination. Henceforth converting the role of a front man, and, subsequently, popular music. His gayness is never defined or examined, merely tossed aside and arguably detailed as the great divide from him and everyone else. Like that of an illness or a disease of his sexual perplexity, as if the stability and normality of his fellow band members is the counteraction to such depravity.
That’s a viewpoint of the film that is never truly proven wrong or right, but for it to rise into conversation of the film’s merits is both discomforting; to say that his overexertion of gayness and femininity enwrapped in male bravado is perhaps his downfall, well, that’s something conceived out of ignorant insecurity.
Luckily, the music is great. Opening and closing with Queen’s iconic Live Aid performance from 1985, the film attempts to craft a growth and payoff sort of biopic in which Freddie's battles with obstacles placed in front of him by trespassers and intruders and his own doing in the hopes of molding a masterful performance for the world to see, something he achieved on a global stage in Wembley. Too much of it is montage though, separated and unconnected vignettes of musical composition that feel hollow of the emotional prowess that was Queen. As the film skims and brushes over the conceptions of hit singles like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You,” and others with this cursory treatment that make it feel as if Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything” & “Darkest Hour”) and the directors were, perhaps, not the biggest fans of Queen, or, better yet, Freddie. The film never even really decides what it wishes to be about; is it Queen, Mercury, or the path that led to that legendary 24-minute performance? Whichever one you decide upon, the results feel lackluster and empty nonetheless, which is not a sign that points to the filmmaker's appreciation for such an atypical, musical-virtuoso like Queen.
But the sheer infectious magic that is Queen cannot be hindered by mere faulty storytelling tropes and creative vices, and neither can Rami Malek’s incarnation of Mercury. The boyishly precarious young actor is far better than the material deserves, echoing and reinvigorating the film’s momentum and masqueraded genius on more than one occasion. He’s aching, searching for the underlying, and suffocated depth that isn’t there, mirroring the pain and loss, and even the confusion of a man losing himself to his own artisan acumen.
The best moment of this embodying performance comes in that of the vignette-like recreation of the infamous Live Aid performance in the film’s operatic finale in which Singer and his cronies take a backseat to Mercury’s, and even Malek’s, brilliance. The tsunami of humanity hypnotized by a supernatural presence that has never been matched on stage in what was the one scene in which I could feel myself leaning into the screen, enwrapped by the enchanting extravagance that was Freddie Mercury. The fact that Malek can mold such a thing in the midst of this distorted, linear, and conventional biopic is evidence of the sheer talent he possesses as an actor.
And the acting as a whole is lyrical, rhythmical almost. Playing like that of the actual band itself, in which everyone attempts to match Malek’s sheer eccentric brilliance. Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, and Joseph Mazzello construe the frustrations of a band that is chained to one-man’s crusade for perfection, for experimentation. In some ways they love it, in others, it’s a continuing strenuous exercise to bring Freddie back down to Earth. Alongside them, Lucy Boynton is solid in depicting Freddie’s long-time love Mary Austin. Her reactions and discoveries of Freddie’s evolving sexuality is perhaps the most-blatant missed opportunity by the filmmakers.
Which is where the film’s shortcomings fall upon, the blame lies with that of those behind the camera. Though the cinematography is luscious, vividly piercing even, “Bohemian Rhapsody” falls apart in the way it's fellow genre adversaries do: remaining superficial, negligent of complexity, and adverse to the depth behind an artist’s work.
The sheer ferocity exhibited from Malek, forces the final 45-minutes of the film into something of a compelling nature, willing his craft through the murkiness of what could arguably be described as phobic. The lack of context, attention-to-detail, and mere oversight of the subtleties of Freddie’s situation and the context of what it would mean to “come out” in the 1970s are not explored near enough to fabricate a final product. The single star and half for this review can be attributed to Malek, his contemporaries, and the veiled magic that is lurking underneath this formulaic biopic of a band that was anything but that.
The film’s reluctance to deal and to dive into the man behind the machine, the fuel for such a mystifying creature like Queen, is what becomes the ingredient for catastrophe. That alongside the film’s failure to even craft a story behind the band’s creation, behind its production of iconic hits, is what makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” perhaps the greatest disappointment of the year for myself.
Yes, Freddie, himself, was never one to draw a crowd and confess his vices, instead choosing to craft hope out of self-destruction. But, his name is synonymous with that of the queerness that arguably crafted the band’s experimental nature. Genius doesn’t emerge from a vacuum, and Mercury was many things, one of which was promiscuous, and that is a point to be made in this expression of an artist’s convictions. His muse is there, his sexual liberation well-noted, but the men behind the reimagination of his life seem to be anything but excited to depict such an icon, one that has become an inspiring anthem for queerness. Why would you take that away from us?