The Tragedy of “Bohemian Rhapsody” Isn’t How Freddie Mercury Died, It’s How (It Thinks) He Lived and the Man Behind the Camera

If polls were run to see who the most iconic personality in music is, the results would certainly lean towards Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, the bastion of beautifully flamboyant, unchecked and unmatched opulence. Decades after his untimely passing from AIDS and his presence is one both widely felt and deeply missed. Of course that means a life as flashy, defiant and legendary as his would make for a great movie, as its taken near thirty years for that life to grace the big screen. After watching it, though, who the hell at 20th Century Fox thought any of what passes for history and entertainment in Bohemian Rhapsody was right? And what’s worse is this is what audiences and Queen fans think is masterful and respectful storytelling?!

To say it paints by numbers and connects dots in its exploration of the rise, “fall and redemption” of Queen throughout the 1970s and 80s – all of which is well realized by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Drive), first time production designer Aaron Haye (who served as art director for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes …and Terminator Genisys) and costume designer Julian Day (Rush) – would be an understatement. That’s because the way screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, both films of towering leading performances shackled to historically clunky approaches) relays history suggests the numbers were already painted in and the dots were already linked by unraveling string the time the first sentence of the script was typed out. It’s also the legend of Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek) and, despite his engagement to the loving and supportive Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, Sing Street), his slow acceptance of his attraction to men. Except it isn’t all that slow thanks to one crucial specter in his new life that will be explored when the time’s right.

In the first of numerous detours from reality, Mercury, slowly shedding his Parsi identity of Heathrow luggage handler Farrokh Bulsara, fatefully encounters guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor (played here by Gwilym Lee, The Tourist and Ben Hardy, X-Men: Apocalypse) mere seconds after former frontman Tim Staffell (Jack Roth, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) walks out on them and their band Smile to pursue a future with Humpy Bong, a rock band that puttered out right as Queen started playing sold out tours worldwide; it’s not like Mercury wasn’t already good friends with the band and played with them on occasion, but hey, audiences love textbook drama. His arrival transforms Smile into Queen, a band of “misfits playing to the other misfits,” as Mercury describes and the film goes from iconic song creation to tour to fight to iconic song creation to tour to fight and an endless rinse and repeat for two hours that starts to wear itself out by the time “Another One Bites the Dust” is used as Mercury’s anthem for touring local leather bars in the 80s. His parents, particularly his valedictorian father of the School for Crossed-arm Grumps, are concerned about his career plans and his budding rejection of his identity as the more flamboyant and eccentric persona becomes too large for anyone to handle, even Mercury himself, but it’s not as if the film cares that much about them as they only appear when the thematically appropriate moments call for them. 

Many Queen and Mercury fans will be pleased to know that his sexuality hasn’t been “straight-washed”, as a number of online commentators and entertainment personalities feared would happen after early reports about the script surfaced and original lead Sacha Baron Cohen walked off the project after numerous disagreements with surviving Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who serve as consultants and even provide a thrilling rock arrangement of the 20th Century Fox theme. But after first glances, how it’s actually addressed feels tame, timid and outdated. The film’s PG-13 rating was an indicator that Bohemian Rhapsody wouldn’t dive too deep into the hedonism that tailed Mercury throughout the 80s. Not that the exploration of Mercury’s sexuality needs to be a endless cavalcade of perversities that rivals the legendary deleted scenes of William Friedkin’s Cruising seem, but don’t Eyes Wide Shut it and obscure it. Go for it and show no fear when doing so. Even Mercury’s relationship with longterm partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) feels shoehorned in, as if someone had to remind Mr. McCarten during a revision that Freddie Mercury had a serious relationship with a man during the last years of his life. Maybe that’s because the movie was more focused on speeding up when he was diagnosed with the disease and setting this devastating moment to “Who Wants to Live Forever”, which is just downright tacky.

There’s also the way Paul Pretner (Allen Leech of TV’s “Downton Abbey” and The Imitation Game, a Weinstein-era biopic still under scrutiny over how it handled and depicted Alan Turing’s private life), Mercury’s personal manager and first male lover, is portrayed, which begins as troubling and ends on disturbing. Introduced early as assistant to manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen), Prenter is always around, recognizing a kindred queer soul in Mercury while circling him like a starved hawk hungry for the faintest morsel of meaty scraps with the subtlety of… well, there is no subtlety to any of it. The portrayal shares similarities to educational films from the 1960s where homosexuals were portrayed as conniving predators lurking around backwoods bathrooms for defenseless young men and public schools waiting to walk “little Billy” home and making a detour at the seediest Motel 6 six miles out of the way. Once Mercury becomes accepting of his bisexuality, following a heartbreaking yet cruel (but not far from reality) moment where Mary tells him he’s actually gay after coming out to her, Prenter encourages the more grandiose and flamboyant aspects of fame and infamy, the indulgence and abuse of drugs, alcohol and so many leather bound men. At one point, as the members of the band scream out their long-gestating frustrations at each other just as Mercury decides to pursue a solo career (despite the real Roger Taylor already having released two solo albums at this point, though that little detail is conveniently left out), Prenter, having subtly manipulated events to get Reid fired and take over for Mercury alone, sits in the background as witness. The way he sits and observes, one anticipates Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor laugh to escape Mr. Leech’s mouth as John Williams’ iconic theme drones on the soundtrack. And why wouldn’t we think in such ways? Screenwriting seminars teach that all movies need an antagonist, a literal villain to serve as foil to the protagonist – when the band reconciles later for the impending Live Aid concert, Mercury tells his bandmates how Prenter was ultimately fired for “Villainy” – but in the case of completely vilifying someone, especially someone who also died from AIDS-related complications mere weeks before the real Freddie Mercury succumbed to the disease, for the sake of entertainment is just… there just aren’t any words.

It’s also interesting how the other band members don’t get a fair shake and feel completely underdeveloped, especially with two of them actually working on this. Mr. Lee, Hardy and Joseph Mazzello, as bass player John Deacon, do what’s written for them and do it well, but there isn’t anything to learn about May, Taylor or Deacon except that they had fluctuating hair styles and heights over two decades, had “boring” pursuits they left behind to follow the music and would repeatedly shake their heads as they cradle the hands of their wives or girlfriends and clutch their metaphorical pearls, surprisingly not literal ones when filming the music video for “I Want to Break Free”, when Mercury shows up to rehearsals either really late or really high or allows his sexual identity to overwhelm everything. At one point, Mercury even chastises Deacon by saying he knows nothing about him outside of the band and that’s frighteningly accurate with this film. We don’t get any real idea of who these people are outside of Mercury himself. There’s nothing to be learned about Mary Austin and why she was the most important figure in his life, nothing to learn about Jim Hutton or later Queen manager Jim “Miami” Beach (Tom Hollander). And then there’s Mike Myers under heavy makeup as an EMI executive who gets on Mercury’s bad side when declaring “Bohemian Rhapsody” will never play on the radio because it isn’t a song that teenagers can bang their heads to in a car. One can guess that line is probably the only reason why Mr. Myers was brought on for that part.

And then there’s the Jumanji-level elephant that makes all the other elephants in the room inconsequential: Bryan Singer himself. 

Mr. Singer is a director who’s seemingly courted controversy as long as his name’s been big enough to put on a marquee with the title. Even without twenty years of predatory and assault rumors and gossip passed around every gay bar in West Hollywood, last year became something entirely different when he was fired off this film due to the strange cocktail mix of showing up to set late, erratic behavior and constant fights with the cast and crew. Despite being replaced by Dexter Fletcher (currently filming the Taron Egerton-starring Elton John biopic Rocketman), who completed the shoot, Mr. Singer received sole directing credit and Mr. Fletcher garnered an Executive Producer one. The marketing has been clever to hide his involvement from the general public, but that’s too little too late in the wake of last year and a recent Instagram post suggesting an incoming expose from Esquire is coming; there was also in that post a comment that made this reviewer laugh when Mr. Singer described how proud he was of this film. If he was so proud of the film, he wouldn’t have been fired off it and only retained his credit due to DGA rules. But if one compliment, albeit a slight underhanded one, is to be made about the director debacle, the flow and visuals are consistent, so unlike Justice League and the glaring difference between Zack Snyder’s original film and Joss Wheadon’s reshoots, Mr. Singer and Fletcher’s visions seem to bridge together.

At the same time, even with all Mr. Singer has been accused of and what potentially lies ahead, there’s something perversely entertaining – far more entertaining than anything in Bohemian Rhapsody, sad to say – watching the people online who grandstand about how “Hollyweird” defends terrible people as they gladly shill out $20+ dollars for a ticket of a movie by the man they foamed at the mouth over to see judged and eviscerated in the court of public opinion. And if the film warrants major awards status between now and next year, then the hypocrisy on both sides of the #MeToo discussion will be a profound one. The general public’s is already staggering due to the almost $150 million the film’s already grossed in under a week both stateside and internationally, so let’s see if the industry follows suit. So those complaining about how Mr. Singer is still getting work, think about that ticket stub in your wallet or purse for Bohemian Rhapsody the next time you want to say something.

* on a side note, as someone who, thanks to circumstance and friends, has actually been to Mr. Singer’s home in the Hollywood Hills before, I never personally saw or experienced any of the salacious gossip that follows him. The strangest thing that can be said about him, from my perspective, was that he kept a trunk in the garage area of DVDs for one of the trailers for Superman Returns. 

The one who ultimately suffers the most out of all this is Rami Malek. After years of supporting gigs in indie films like The Master and Short Term 12 and his starring role on TV’s “Mr. Robot”, this performance is what it’s all been building up to and it’s one hell of a powerhouse. Much like Marion Cotillard’s Oscar winning portrayal of French songstress Edith Piaf, Mr. Malek doesn’t simply play Freddie Mercury so much as he becomes Freddie Mercury reborn on the silver screen for two and a quarter hours. He’s truly a force to be reckoned with here as he captures Mercury’s phoenix-like existence to the T, especially during the climactic Live Aid sequence that bookends the film, perhaps the one crowning achievement of everything and that’s thanks to the hard work everyone in front of and behind the camera puts into it. In any other year and without the controversy certain to hover over for the foreseeable future, you would certainly see him collecting every acting trophy from here until the end of awards season.

Most will argue that this film isn’t meant to be a critical favorite, but a crowdpleaser. That may be true, but just because something pleases a crowd doesn’t mean it should take their knowledge of their favorites for granted. And there’ll be those who argue Bohemian Rhapsody’s middling critical reception is fine because that’s how Queen was received back in the day; there’s even a humorous moment where the titular track’s scathing reviews are shown amidst a recreation of the music video plays before segueing into sold-out concerts and imagery that references the original Superman’s opening credits. Again, the difference is “Bohemian Rhapsdy” the song, was negatively received for being too ahead of its time, much like Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”; Bohemian Rhapsody the movie is being negatively received for simply phoning in a very tired, reckless and just flat-out bad excuse of a script about a band that was anything but and under the direction of a person with the wrong baggage for such material. It doesn’t understand the kind of person Freddie Mercury was. Instead, it perversely fetishizes the tabloid idea and tries to humanize that idea, only to punish him out of frustration. That’s not what a tribute to Freddie Mercury or Queen should be about, but if that’s what the audience wants to see, it’s currently out there.

* Bohemian Rhapsody, courtesy of 20th Century Fox, is currently playing nationwide. Check your local listings for showtimes.

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