Film review: Bohemian Rhapsody (Director: Bryan Singer)
By Sascha Krieger
Musicians‘ biopics are not among the least popular fares of cinema but they aren’t without risks either. While the fanbase can usually be counted on to run to the theatres in flocks and – depending on the notoriety of the subjects – the celebrity-curious masses will as well, depictions of beloved stars‘ lives will invariably meet with a long litany of criticisms especially from devoted fans who are bound to find the portrayal of their darlings inadequate. However, as this usually does not to affects at least the initial box office numbers significantly, it was only a matter of time until Freddie Mercury’s life would make its way to the big screen. Mercury, lead singer of the legendary hit factory of bombastic rock anthems that was Queen, is one of the most intriguing figures in the history of popular music: a flamboyant and mesmerising performer with an unmatched voice and unbelievable vocal range, an eccentric and hedonist capturing the desires of many, the curiosity of almost all and the fear of some. And, following his untimely death at the age of 45, an icon in the fight against HIV and AIDS and by proxy against discrimination and for tolerance and diversity.
Freddie Mercury was a man of contradictions: the son of an Indian Parsi family he shed his name (he was born Farrokh Bulsara), his origin (he was born in Zanzibar, not London) and his entire identity – not once, but many times. He embraced many of the assets of gay culture without admitting to his sexuality, he struggled bravely and in the most dignified way with his disease but did not own up to it in public until the last moment, indeed, he was the ultimate extrovert and even exhibitionist but kept his private life under wraps. while public persona and personal self don’t often match in so-called celebrities, they were so far apart with Mercury that the gulf between them almost broke them. Any film depicting his life must deal with this existential and elementary tension – a tension so strong it might help explain why it took so long – 27 years after his death – until the film was finally made.
And it is a tension the film struggles with from its first till its final minute. The solution the directors (Bryan Singer who is credited disappeared and then was fired in the late stages of production and was replaced with Dexter Fletcher who will release an Elton John biopic shortly) found was to keep the film as conventional as possible. It tells the story in chronological order, framed by arguably the high point of Mercury and Queen’s career, their triumphant Live aid performance in 1985. After setting up the eventual superstar status he will reach, we first see a slightly rebellious airport worker and live at home son who sees his chance when a band he’s been following requires a new singer. The rest seems a foregone conclusion: a quick rise to fame, struggles within the band and himself, splits and reunions, guilt and redemption and a final ultimate triumph. Especially in its early stages the story is rushed, Mercury’s entering the band and their success happen almost immediately. There is no focus on musical or any other kind of development. The sound is right there from the start, the hits are, too. One of the key aspects of musical biopics is usually artistic development, finding one’s voice, one’s unique artistic signature.
Bohemian Rhapsody does not care about this at all. While continually referencing Mercury’s love of music, it doesn’t show it, it doesn’t allow the audience to feel or experience it. The only glimpse into the artistic process is with the title song and even that is more on the humorous side. And while at least Mercury’s talent and magic as a performer is brought up repeatedly, the sources, the development of his unique style are not highlighted, so the theatricality we know is right there but it lacks any underpinning and therefore remains on the kind of experience we can get from watching original footage. When Queen perform, it is re-enacted and but no depth is added. Performance karaoke on the big screen. The other key element is the personal. This starts with the film’s best choice: Rami Malek is a revelation as Freddie. While getting his mannerisms and speaking voice down to the point – and making the smart decision to use original Queen recordings for the music parts – Malek gives at least a hint of Mercury’s broken personality, his insecurities, his basic loneliness as in the touching scene when he tries to communicate with the wife he had to leave behind as he discovered he was gay from window to window. The forlorn glances, the nervous uncertainty in his face and eyes tell stories the film seems to care little about.
For what it surrounds this fine performance – to which an excellent band cast (Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazello), which, however is only used episodically, is added – is a cliché fest: from the simplistic rise to and struggle with fame story to a worrying amount of anti-gay stereotypes (embodied by the film’s villain, Mercury’s openly gay one-time confidant Paul) to a rush through highly obvious and simplistic – and therefore can be easily discarded – conflicts to a simple iconography which depicts the protagonist ans a broken but somewhat superhuman hero, complete with an imagery that focuses adoringly on the fascinating character, always intent to put him centre frame and into the best light, even converting any ugliness into necessary attributes of beauty. His homosexuality is a sidenote as is his struggle with AIDS. Any opportunities they might offer to reveal a greater depth in Mercury is wasted as the film is afraid to scratch the surface. There’s not even a hint of sex and no mention of any existential suffering beyond his initial loneliness. The AIDS revelation is passed by in a way that astonishes: he learns of it, tells the band, they have a drink. End of story.
This is symptomatic for a film that avoids any difficulties, anything that might make it too dark, anything that goes where it could really hurt. Instead it spends its final 15 minutes with a detailed re-enactment of Queen’s Live Aid set, masterfully acted but ultimately ice-cold. Yes, the music lavishly bestowed throughout the film does have its effect, yes, Malik’s acting is superb and hits at much greater depth than the screenplay allows, and yes there are short scenes, vignettes of existential loneliness and the longing for connection that are close to touching. But ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody remains in its comfort zone, plays it safe where it can, relies on Freddie Mercury’s mesmerising public persona that it can be sure will continue to please. It does not explore, it does not dig deep but settles smugly on simple iconography. „We Will Rock You“ is possibly the best known song of the band. This film refuses to come anywhere near it in its aseptic cleanness and comfortable cowardice that more than once has no issues employing anti-gay stereotypes to avoid asking hard questions. It could hardly do more of a disservice to this tragic and fascinating man.