Although I have come out very strongly in favor of movies about music, movie biopics are frequently another matter entirely. I am always excited for them and, frequently, led down. However, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY profiles a lead singer I respected but did not necessarily enjoy musically and his band that I disliked save for maybe 4-5 songs.

Thus, I was hopeful that my diminished expectations would lead to elevated enjoyment. But would that hopefulness derail that and lead to less than ideal entertainment? And so on. But enough about me, let’s talk Freddie.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: Love that armband
Rami Malek commands the microphone during Live Aid in a scene from BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Rami Malek: BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY’s Savior

Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), born Farrokh Bulsara, is a man out of step everywhere he goes. Tanzanian, he remains repeatedly identified and insulted by racist British society as Pakistani. At home, his father perceives by they boy would would be Mercury as too invested in British and youth culture. He looks unusual amongst his peers. He dresses unusually in comparison to his peers. At home, he fails to fulfill family expectations.

And then, in the background, is his sexuality, which we will explore later.

Malek is excellent at playing in these spaces. You can see how he almost manages to contort himself to fit in. Even more powerfully, you can see how deep the wounds are cut when he is “found out.” As the film progresses, Malek layers more and more armor in the form of arrogance and camp on. Yet, he continues to let that pain shine through, of being someone who has no place to call home, no place to truly be free.

In a movie that frequently seems lost in cliché and rudderless, he gives BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY a beating heart and that is no small thing.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: First recording
Gwilym Lee, Rami Malek, and Ben Hardy celebrate recycling 70s style in a scene from BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

But Who Is BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY Actually About?

If you ask your average filmgoer who the most compelling member of Queen is and thus who they expect the movie to be about; you will get Freddie Mercury. If you ask Brian May specifically, you may get a different answer, but otherwise, Freddie Mercury. The thing is, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY asked Brian May a lot who the lead character should be and it shows. As a result, the film veers between a purely Mercury biopic movie and a Queen movie at the cost of all the participants. It becomes a movie entirely of events, never of evolution.

Things do not get ramped up to, they just happen. We cut away from the band one moment and to Freddie, but it’s years later and now all the bandmates are married and he’s isolated and alone. How did we get here? The movie does not care and suggests that neither should we. As a result, we get to see lots of Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, but they never become characters. May is the stable one, Taylor the hothead and the womanizer, Deacon the…well the bland one?

Seriously, there is a moment where Mercury wants to insult Deacon but can’t. As the viewer we are as confused about who Deacon is as Mercury. Freddie at least has the excuse that he is an egomaniac abusing drugs. For us, it plays like an unintentional joke about how little BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY has cared about fleshing out its characters.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: Freddy and Mary
Rami Malek and Lucy Boynton are young and in love but just not in that way in a scene from BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Sexuality and The Fear Thereof

Freddie Mercury was a self-idemtified bisexual man who died from AIDS-related complications in 1991. (The movie implies this assertion to be a lie and essentially identifies him as gay but I believe he insisted he was bi until his death.) This is a well-known fact.

It is also an important fact. Mercury was an early public face of the disorder and an early “out” performer. Even before he was out he spent years exploring and challenging expected gender and sexuality prsentations. He had a long-term male partner at the time of his death.

These are not only accurate things about him, they are interesting. To be young, popular, and closeted in the late 70s and to be in your thirties; out, and dying of a virus that many considered a “gay disease” in the 80s are unique and compelling turns in one’s life.

In the world of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, it feels kind of like it isn’t. On the one hand, Mercury’s sexuality is acknowledged fairly openly in dialogue. On the other, he never kisses a man in the entire movie. The most contact we ever see him have with a man is a meaningful hand hold. Not to be flip, but Mercury did not contract HIV from holding hands. This squeamishness about sex is ridiculous.

Sexuality and The Fear-mongering Thereof

On the other hand, there is how this film does depict queer culture and relationships. Frddie is depicted in fuzzy fades and crosscuts moving through gay dance clubs, leather bars, and underground sex clubs. The only out character of any note is evil and breaks up the band, not actually something that happened. And, of course, after the most substantial queer culture montage we get a mine too subtle scene implying that Mercury is sick, directly suggesting that one visit to a leather daddy club equals AIDS. It is just evil to depict same sex sexuality this way in 2018. Freddie can’t share a kiss with his longtime partner Jim onscreen but the movie can basically scream, “see gay sex is dirty and wrong and DEATH” while never showing you even a second of an actual same sex love scene.

For a movie that has May call Americans “Puritans in public, perverts in private,” the movie he shepherded into existence in real life feels less comfortable with gay love than America is currently. No one is demanding an 18-minute hardcore sex scene, but one kiss between Mercury and another man hardly seems like a big ask. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is fundamentally dishonest with this issue.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: The Band
Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Rami Malek, and Gwilym Lee model the very best in current fashion in a moment from BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Gilding the Lily

If the movie undersells Mercury’s sexuality at times, it often oversells itself. The film, at times, feels fundamentally defensive. Like it is not enough to be a story of a beloved band with a dynamic frontman who took on an even bigger standing because of his death. Instead, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY feels like it was made by people who felt the movie had to prove that they were THE MOST IMPORTANT BAND.

Some of this is no doubt a product of it being about Queen, a band that has always been fairly in love with the idea of itself as important. I’m sure they had discussions with record execs like the one they had in the movie with a sleepwalking Mike Myers in the film’s biggest groaner of a scene. However, this fight seems to occur in a vacuum. It isn’t just that Queen is a big band, if you believe in that scene they are literally the only band.

Some of it is also that I don’t know a ton about Queen. For instance, the mic stand thing Freddie did apparently does have an origin similar to the one in the movie. To a novice on Queen history though, the scene feels bizarre, like the time Geoff Johns gave us the origin of Barry Allen’s bow ties.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: BoRhap Track
Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Joseph Mazzello, and Rami Malek get close in a scene from BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Then There is Live Aid

Live Aid, one of the biggest live music events of all-time, and Queen’s set is perhaps the most legendary set of that day. Maybe Phil Collins playing in two different countries on the same day or U2’s stage storming ascension to the biggest band in the world would have something to say about it, but Queen is certainly in the hunt.

Anyway, it is a massive deal. But the film doesn’t trust you to believe it. So instead they festoon it with extra meaning. Freddie reveals he has AIDS (he did not). Freddie and the band hadn’t been speaking for months before (not true). No one was donating until Queen took the stage (seemingly false as well).

The movie does not trust itself to make you feel what a breathtaking moment that set was so they loaded it up with false relevance. Worse, you can see it all. This movie has zero chill, and every time it rearranges time or adds importance in a bid to make the moment bigger, you can always see it coming. In other biopics, the films manage this kind of thing seamlessly. Here, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY gives itself away at every turn.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: We Will Rock you
Rami Malek bemused by Gwilym Lee’s “We Will Rock You” beat in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY’s Style or Lack Thereof

Queen, especially the Queen of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, was a wild anarchic band. They did unusual things with looping, with non-instruments, with nontraditional inspirations. They fought against the norm and rejected ever replicating their success in the same way. So why does the movie feel so bland?

None of the band’s energy finds its way into the frame composition, the editing, into the camera moves. The closest we get is a montage in which the names of the cities the band continues to visit pour forward in bright colors like a poster come to life. Otherwise, it all feels inert. The movie should reflect its subject matter, and the gulf here is so very wide.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: The crowd
Rami Malek and the rest of the band take the stage at Live Aid in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Living)

That’s a Wrap!

For everything BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY does well: some legit humor, Malik’s performance, a rare perspective on Mercury’s cultural conflicts, it does a lot worse. A script that could not remain more cliché, a fear of truly giving us the full scope of the man, zero dimensions given to the rest of the band and so on. If you love Queen, maybe it is worth a trip to the cinema. On the other hand, you can just watch that Live Aid set on YouTube.

5 Comments

  1. Karen Fiori

    December 22, 2018 at 12:03 am

    Are you sure you saw the same movie I have seen 4 times now. Bland??? Why do you feel the focus should have been on his sexuality instead of his amazing talent, creativity and strength to overcome whatever was thrown at him. I find your take on the movie full of bias and a total lack of perspective. He kissed twice in the movie. Sorry there weren’t more sexual scenes to satisfy your obvious curiosity. The focus was on the music, the band and the era. It was about family, compassion, self discovery, self motivation and so much more. Laughter, sorrow, love, loss and the human spirit in all it’s glory and all it’s nastiness. You must have missed those qualities. In two hours and fifteen minutes it took us where we needed to go, lifted us up and wrapped around us like a hug from the past. You missed the entire point of the movie but millions of people understood so your input is meaningless.

    Reply

  2. Antonio Santa Cruz Polanco

    Antonio Santa Cruz Polanco

    November 14, 2018 at 8:53 am

    What kind of idiocy is this? Too nice to be interesting? The movie was amazing! Great performances, one helluva stroll down memory lane…and you bash it for being “too nice”?

    Reply

  3. Gus Lindgren

    Gus Lindgren

    November 14, 2018 at 2:03 am

    It easily could have been a movie just for adults but they made it something I could share with my kid which I really appreciate.

    Reply

  4. Douglas Smith

    Douglas Smith

    November 13, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    So Boiopics are only good when there is conflict and drama?

    Reply

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