Bohemian Rhapsody – 2018
Director Bryan Singer
Screenplay Anthony McCarten
Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Allen Leech, Aaron McCusker
There is a moment in the last half hour of Bohemian Rhapsody that perhaps best signifies who Freddie Mercury is in the lives of so many. He’s on his way back, literally, from a lost weekend where he endangered his band, his relationships, his career and his life. He gets the feeling that something is amiss and privately goes to a clinic. There he discovers what would take the rest of us nearly half a decade to learn the day before he died of AIDS.
On his way out of the clinic, he’s alone, not wanting to be seen. The sole person in the hallway is a fellow traveller on the path towards oblivion. Bruised and gaunt, the faintly handsome man calls out weakly to Mercury. What he sings is the beginnings of a call and response Freddy had with his fans for years in concert. The camera stops on Mercury’s face. He’s aware he’s been recognized. The viewer, seemingly like Mercury himself, doesn’t know how he’ll respond. Will he move on, leaving this young man unrecognized as he heads to a lonely death?
The camera hangs for a beat, and we get the answer. The call receives its loving response. The recognition is a watermark for the time when so many died alone and, seemingly, in shame. Freddie Mercury wasn’t having any of that. And now neither are we.
For as long as I have been alive, the perception of “alternative” lifestyle has been in a constant state of flux. Mercury and his band mates in Queen went a long way to help making this a reality. No matter what the more conservative members of my friends and family thought about homosexuality, Queen was always cool. I don’t think there was ever a time I didn’t realize their lead singer was gay, and the rest of the band was not. It didn’t make their music any less powerful to us.
The film about the band is for the most part, about its leader. For this reason it is powerful, but also somewhat disappointing. Malek does an incredible job in his portrayal of the quirky and incredibly talented singer. We get a real sense of the strength of his personality which allows him to push himself into the band and into the life of Mary Austin. He withstands criticism like a man who understands the critics are only minor characters in the first act of the story of his life.
Meanwhile, we get a sense of Mercury in the band for the mostly easygoing nature they had as mates and partners. One of the knowing highlights of the film is when Meyers, as EMI executive Ray Foster, craps all over the title song with an authority only a stiff executive trying to appear hip might muster. The first half of the Bohemian Rhapsody, to the moment just before they flash the numbers “1980” on the screen, gives many such moments of joy.
The film falters in several ways after this, but it is rarely the fault of the performers. Mostly it’s here where it feels like every possible trope for a rock band movie is thrown in and the songs are jumbled up. This is pushed to the point where it’s impossible to tell if they’re intentionally mixing things up or just straight up economizing at risk of cohesion.
The problem with this approach is the fact that so many of the films intended viewers know these songs intimately. It’s one thing to let us know bits about why a song is created and who gets credit for them. It’s entirely another to just throw it wherever one think it might fit a perceived emotional lull because maybe the band got along a fair bit better than the typical rock biography might anticipate.
The events and their causes are so thrown about in this second half, it almost undoes the true gift of Mercury and Queen. They had a prolific (if not necessarily critically lauded) output in the late ’70s and early ’80’s, but the film has the group on the ropes.
So they make mountain out of what seems to have been mole hills in their career. They push Mercury’s diagnosis up a few years (originally he discovered this in 1987) and they make it seem like it’s some sort of comeback to play Live Aid. Even someone who knows the release dates of their music could easily dismiss this as a sham presentation not worthy of the subject.
The production of the film was troubled from the start. Sacha Baron Cohen split creatively from the project. I am glad they moved from him, eventually to the incredibly talented chameleon Malek. We didn’t need this film to be a notch on Cohen’s artistic bedpost.
Singer seemed an ideal choice to exhibit one of the key themes of the film, which is Mercury’s transformation off stage. There is a tenderness that he hits in presenting someone who can’t come to terms with who he is due to a multitude of factors.
One is Mary (Lucy Boynton), who remained close as possible through the changes in both of their lives. What in the hell one is to make when one’s fiance finally admits he’s gay, but doesn’t stop being in love?
Another factor is that of Paul Prenter (Leech) who gives Mercury the poison apple that the singer dines on for years, unaware he’s being lulled into submission. Singer gives a realistic demonstration of evil here. In the knowing hands of Singer, we understand it’s not sexual preference that makes Prenter evil.
In contrast we have McCusker as Jim Hutton, who gives Mercury a healthy relationship to strive towards. Singer and, more likely Malek encourages in the viewer a desire for Mercury to succeed, even if we know he has the shadow of doom looming.
Overall if the film succeeds, it’s because we get to see Mercury most accurately as a man who could more honestly relate to people onstage than he could in his personal life. Anyone living through this time should be able to understand why this is so. And sympathize with it, even if it seems slightly different than today’s expectations of activism in our public figures.
If only it had been more an accurate portrayal of the kindness the band seemed to have with one another. The rest of the band members look the part, and they definitely have a rapport. Lee, Hardy and Mazzello as May, Taylor and Deacon give one the feeling we’re right there with the band when the story allows. In a better version of this story, they might all be worthy more recognition.
As it is, Malek is remarkable. He does his job with such panache every viewer leaves the film loving Mercury and his band. Pushing through the “get to the show” mentality of the last act that would hamstring most performers, we get a genuine sense of who Mercury is as a person for the little things. In this way, ultimately, this very flawed film succeeds. If he’s not nominated for an Oscar, I will just consider it another typical year in which the best we see gets forgotten.
(***1/2 out of *****)