Bohemian Rhapsody is an interesting film, one that offered me a peculiar experience at the cinemas. There were many, many moments that made me smile and the final 15 minutes left me a weeping mess — when Freddie roared “weee’llll keep on fighting till the end,” I took a breath and if you were seated next to me, you would’ve heard the sound of snot being sucked up my congested nose. As a fan of old school rock, I enjoyed the shit out of this movie.
But here’s the peculiar part. Despite the tears shed and the sheer amount of fun I had watching and singing along with it (not out loud; Oh trust me, I wanted to, but no one else was doing it and I didn’t wanna be THAT guy who isn’t cool, though I think that ship sailed at congested nose) I was also left feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Bohemian Rhapsody is a wonderful celebration of Queen, the legendary band that shook our souls and gave new meaning to rock and roll; the band that infused disco, opera and weirdness with classic rock, birthing iconic, timeless anthems like We Will Rock You, Another One Bites the Dust, We are the Champions and Bohemian Fucking Rhapsody; the band whose frontman is more than a vocalist, he’s a charismatic enigma — my god, what a talent! — and this film is a rousing celebration.
Yet, something wasn’t quite right.
For one, this film isn’t a particularly enthralling character study. It doesn’t strip the band nor its frontman down to their bare bones and examine them under a microscope, which is what I look forward to in a biopic. What makes Amadeus a great film is that it’s not just a celebration of one of the most storied musicians of all time, Mozart, but a wicked examination of his arch rival’s envy and desperation to watch his adversary fail. David Fincher’s The Social Network is a riveting biography not because it’s about computer programming (it isn’t at all) and isn’t just about the genius who created a social media platform that would go on to forever change our lives, but about the cold, emotionally distant, socially obtuse dickhead underneath the genius — its opening scene ends with a theme setting exclamation mark: “you’re going to go through your whole life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole!”
Look, I’m not saying Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t explore its protagonist at all. It does. This isn’t an all sunshine and rainbows depiction of Freddie Mercury and Queen. Freddie, here, does go through trials and tribulations and he’s far from a perfect individual. The film touches on his disconnect with his Parsi-Indian roots and ethnicity, it touches on his downward spiral, his drugs and alcohol abuse, it touches on — and this, I’m very happy about — his sexuality and addresses his gayness head on without judgment. I love that director Bryan Singer and writer Anthony McCarten (The Darkest Hour, Theory of Everything) chose to include Mary Austin, a woman who Freddie met backstage at a local bar when he was a nobody (this was before Queen), and they became best friends and then lovers and then man & wife, only for Freddie to later realise that he isn’t bi-curious, but gay. The pair get a divorce but remained best friends till death did them apart.
But the keyword here is ‘touch’. Because all of those intriguing plot points take a backseat to the joyous celebration of her majesty the QUEEN. More than watching the band combine household items and musical instruments to form unique sounds (a sequence that is admittedly very cool and fun) I wanted to explore Freddie’s detachment/almost resentment towards his roots, his cold relationship with his mostly inexpressive Parsi-Indian family, his struggles as a gay man who married a woman (did their sex life began to flounder after his realisation? If it did, did it cause tension and sexual frustration?) and his loneliness… especially his loneliness. I have always found it fascinating and sad how some people who seemingly have everything — fame, fortune, women and men constantly throwing themselves at them — end up feeling so lonely and withdrawn. I wished I walked out of the cinema with tears flowing not just of nostalgia and glee, but of sadness and grief and underneath the darkness and depth some inspiration. But I have to remind myself that that isn’t necessarily the film Singer was trying to make. This isn’t a film about Farrokh Bulsara the flawed man, it is about Freddie Mercury, the flamboyant, charismatic icon, that offers glimpses at Farrokh.
I remember having a conversation with a good friend, cinephile and hip hop purist about F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (the N.W.A biopic) a couple of years ago. While my friend liked the film, he was frustrated that it portrayed Dr Dre a little too squeaky clean, maybe a little chivalrous too, completely ignoring the fact that he, at one point, repeatedly hit his girl (Dr. Dre is of course one of the producers of the film.) The surviving members of Queen have producing credit on Bohemian Rhapsody (without their approval, Brian Singer wouldn’t be able to use any of their songs) and because of that, the film does, at times, feel a tad biased. Oh look, there’s Freddie who wants to leave Queen — abandon his family — and start his solo career. Blasphemy! (In real life, both Roger Taylor and Brian May released solo albums before Freddie.) Oh there goes Freddie again with his drugs and wild parties — delinquent Freddie! While Roger and Brian shake their heads disappointingly at him and go home early to their wife and kids. These things MAY be true, but it bothers me knowing that Brian and Roger were wagging their fingers behind the scenes, making sure they’re written and portrayed as wholesome family men. But to be fair, the film also isn’t ashamed to admit that Freddie is arguably the most talented of the lot, undoubtedly the most fascinating and compelling.
But for all the problems I have with the movie, there is absolutely no denying that Rami Malek is EXCELLENT as Freddie Mercury. His performance is infectious! There is acting and then there is being. Here Malek isn’t doing a Freddie Mercury impersonation; this is a performance so transformative that he becomes another human being altogether. It’s the way he looks at you, the way he looks at himself in the mirror, the way he enunciates his words, how he holds the microphone and moves on stage. Malek is so good as Freddie, that if the real Freddie Mercury were alive he would watch this movie and begin to wonder if Malek is a better Freddie Mercury than he is. If he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, there will be riots.
So where does that leave us? (By us, I mean Bohemian Rhapsody and I). Here’s what I’ll say. Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t great cinema. If you’re looking for a deep exploration, you won’t find it here. But this is a fist pumping celebration of one of the most decorated bands of all time, and on that front, it mostly succeeds. If you love Queen’s music, this movie will give you goosebumps. If you don’t love Queen’s music, you will after watching this.
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Malek is so good as Freddie, that if the real Freddie Mercury were alive he would watch this movie and begin to wonder if Malek is a better Freddie Mercury than he is. If he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, there will be riots.