Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Bohemian Rhapsody hopes that the charm and award-worthy performance of its star Rami Malek and strength of its music carries the film, and they mostly do. But rather than being “Bohemian Rhapsody,” this film is more like the more obscure Queen song “I’m in Love With My Car.”
In fact, most of the first half of the film centers around another song entirely, “Love of My Life,” which a young Freddie Mercury pens for his girlfriend Mary. For the first half of the film, she is the love of his life, his muse, and his guiding light. It’s a pretty by-the book romance. We meet him when he is still a young Farrokh Bulsara working at Heathrow Airport, who defies his Parsi immigrant parents by both adopting the name “Freddie” and pursuing music rather than a more stable career.
The film tries to check off a lot of boxes as though it’s a paint-by-numbers jukebox musical biopic off of an assembly line — and the first of these are the tragic romance between Freddie and Mary and Freddie’s relationship with his parents (set up so he can finally get approval from his disapproving father in the finale!) The problem is that you can feel the formula. And, rather than taking any one of these themes and developing it fully, in its attempts to be about everything, it’s actually about nothing. This is tragic, as the life of Freddy Mercury and the music of Queen deserves better than a Wikipedia-level recitation of facts.
Another checkbox is the repeated focus on “this band is a family” which if it were any more overt would require Vin Diesel to show up and ask for copyright infringement royalties on behalf of the Fast and Furious movies. Unfortunately, Freddy plays out front and Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon mostly show up as “the other guys in Queen” rather than having real personalities or character arcs. This is tragic, as each of them are rock gods in their own right and deserve more than to play backup to Rami Malek’s performance.
Another major issue simply checked-off (and possibly the most consequential) is Mercury’s sexuality and place as an icon of gay/queer/bi community. The first half of the film, he is presented just like any other heterosexual rock star but he’s definitely in love with Mary. But his personal story of coming out and coming to grips with his attraction to men is played a little strangely– as though it is shameful or tawdry, including a hookup with a man in a truck stop restroom. At the same time, they really play up his love with Mary and how she inspired some of his biggest songs.
And then, suddenly, he tries to talk to her and say “I think I’m bisexual”– to which she declares, “No, you’re gay.”
And then the rest of the movie, he is gay. He pines for her, but it’s unclear what exactly his feelings are.
It’s really easy to read “bi-erasure” into that. It’s also indicative of the sheen that is used to gloss over all the weird rough patches that normal human beings have. I don’t deign to know what was in Freddie Mercury’s heart of hearts and how he viewed his own sexuality. But I am pretty much 100% sure it wasn’t as simple as just that.
The film also doesn’t do anything to really paint the picture of the stakes of all of this– it was a weird, wild world in the ’70s. For instance, in 1976, Elton John announced he was bi to Rolling Stone and went from rock’n’roll royalty with back-to-back-to-back #1 albums to a pariah whose next albums were record chart poison.
Mercury couldn’t be openly bi, or gay, comfortably in public. But the films plays it as only tabloid fodder and an annoyance but that’s basically it rather than an existential threat to the band and his career wrapped around a personal existential crisis. A better film would’ve introduced this story with Elton John, or a friendship with David Bowie and discussions about queer sexuality to give the audience an understanding of just how big the stakes were. It also was a missed opportunity for some character development for the other band members.
Another checkbox they seem to need to check off is Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis. However, as biopics are wont to do, they compress his diagnosis into the weeks before the band’s iconic Live Aid performance. . . and then the film is over with that as the climax. To be fair– it’s an amazing climax. But, as the tropiest of tropes, they depict Mercury coughing into a white handkerchief and seeing blood come up as code for “he’s sick with AIDS.”
At least they didn’t fall into the “dying of AIDS” trope trap. No doubt that had they gone through the next five years through Mercury’s death and had “The Show Must Go On” as the film’s climax, that would’ve happened. And far too often, queer characters in media contract AIDS and die as though it’s some sort of punishment or warning. So it’s good they don’t fall into that trope. But in so doing, they also fall into numerous others.
I’d say I expect better from Bryan Singer, but. . . I really can’t say that I do. He “gets it” as a gay man. But it’s not nuanced in any way, and the story we seem to be told is, “Freddy was closeted, then he was gay.”
Queen — as a band, a cultural force, a legend — is just so much more than this film covers. It tries to check off a lot of boxes, and so in its attempts to be about everything, it’s sort of about nothing.
It doesn’t have a super strong point of view– it presents these rock gods like a really great “Behind the Music”and all of the individuals seem a little too polished. Mercury is the only one with any edge at all, and even then we get the feeling we’re getting the truth only from a certain point of view.
This is the jukebox biopic America deserves (brash, fun, glossy, uncomplicated) but not the one it needs (smart, challenging, nuanced).
But I daresay anyone who doesn’t cheer/cry at the final “We Are the Champions” performance at Live Aid has a heart of stone.
This is destined to be a huge crowd-pleaser, but unfortunately presents only a small facet of the crown jewel of rock that Queen actually is.
3.5 out of 5 stars