Freddie Mercury is a mythical creature.
The flamboyant costumes, the swaggering stagecraft, that unmistakable voice: the Queen frontman is beyond words like “legend” or “icon” that we throw around much too easily these days. A word that does feel appropriate, however, is mysterious. For all that he left on stage, Mercury was an intensely private man, and only slivers of his personal life were revealed in the last stretch of his life and afterwards. The challenge of the biopic is to peel back the subject’s curtain of the subject to unveil a compelling truth that broadens our understanding of them. Freddie Mercury and Queen are no mere subjects, however; how do you peel back the curtain on a mythical creature?
If you are director Bryan Singer (or Dexter Fletcher, who replaced him after his unceremonious firing), the answer is that you really don’t. What you do instead is Bohemian Rhapsody, the lean, straightforward story of a group of rock gods in the making, from humble pub beginnings to their legendary set at Live Aid in 1985. Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), the man soon to be known as Freddie Mercury, spends his nights at a local pub, watching a band perform so aimlessly that their lead singer eventually ditches them. Backstage after one gig, Freddie makes his pitch to be their new frontman. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) attempt to blow him off, but Bulsara blows them away when he sings, and Queen is born. The band tours their native England and quickly gain a following, taking notice of managers John Reid (Aidan Gillen) and Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) of record label EMI. Global domination follows closely behind, thanks largely in part to the band’s insistence on experimenting with their sound. Along the path to music domination, we get glimpses into Freddie’s personal life: his traditionalist Indian Parsi family that he actively rebels against, and Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), his proclaimed “love of his life” and fiancée. Despite his deep affection for Mary, Freddie is attracted to men, and must reconcile those feelings, alongside band squabbles, music industry pressures, and record label manipulations.
Bohemian Rhapsody takes a workman-like approach to traversing the Queen mythology, checking the necessary boxes to appease rabid fans and hook newbies in. Indeed, the film does a great job at highlighting the band’s sterling discography. Casual listeners may be stunned by just how many classics Queen is responsible for, and the film makes a determined effort to drive interest in them. The scenes exploring the creative process behind their biggest hits offer excellent insight into the band’s dynamics. The Live Aid concert, the highlight that closes the film, is an astounding distillation of Mercury’s irreplaceable talent and presence. These moments are great, but they aren’t the full story. The intense focus on the band’s highlights leaves little room for the lowlights that are equally important to their success. Much of the conflict is glossed over: if the film is to be believed, Queen experienced immediate success and was only challenged twice in their entire career. Bohemian only raises red flags well into the second act, and skipping over the ones on their ascent to mainstream success robs us of the chance to see how fame and fortune changed them. The suggestion that a band with all of those egos didn’t regularly and frequently bump heads is boring, inaccurate, and laughable.
And then there’s Freddie. Freddie Mercury is one of music’s most enigmatic figures, and yet Bohemian Rhapsody struggles to offer anything substantive about him. That’s especially frustrating because there is so much to explore. For starters, Mercury’s discomfort with his Parsi ethnicity and religion is established early, but there’s no explanation why that is. He is subject to racist epithets, from crowds and lovers, several times, but we don’t know how, or if, they affect him. Despite concerns, Mercury isn’t straight-washed, but the handling of his sexuality – whether he was gay, bisexual or something else entirely – is lacking in both subtlety and specificity. There could be compelling conflict in Mercury’s orientation, but the film can only offer a truly awful scene where he stares longingly at a men’s bathroom after an attractive man eyeing him enters. His sexuality is further explored through a blatantly manipulative relationship with a mustache-twirling villain, and a too-brief interaction with the man who he’d spend the rest of his life. We aren’t even offered thoughts on basic points of his personality, like the sources of his unshakeable confidence and his intense loneliness. What the film does touch upon is Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis, using it as a key driver of the third act, even though it makes no sense in the timeline (Mercury was reportedly diagnosed in 1987, two years after Live Aid). With so much material to explore, the deliberate fudging of a crucial point of his life feels unnecessary, and a bit inappropriate. The unwillingness to thoroughly engage with Mercury – the person, or the persona – hollows out the whole experience.
That’s a shame, because Rami Malek deserved a script worthy of his transformative performance. Malek greatly exceeds mere imitation, absorbing the performer’s trademark magnetism and charisma and layering it with intelligence, wit, and haunts of vulnerability and isolation that the film isn’t savvy enough to explore. Malek does lip-sync to Mercury’s voice, but his conviction renders any issue moot, and he even adds new dimension to those iconic vocals. The Live Aid performance in particular sizzles with emotion because of his efforts. Had the film been stronger, Malek would be a guarantee for a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and a contender for the win. Where he lands will depend largely on campaigning and box office numbers, but Academy notice is deserved.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a good film, and a better advocate for purchasing a Queen greatest hits collection. There are few moments of revelation and insight; everything in this film you could’ve gathered through a quick read of their Wikipedia page. Any glimmers of what made Queen so special are awash in a sanitizing effort that risks making their storied career, God forbid, dull. You can’t help but wonder if the trade-off for the music rights was scrubbing the script of anything that risked their vaunted image. If so, then Queen got their money’s worth; this film will help them live on. That doesn’t erase the feeling that the mythos of Freddie Mercury deserved more.