Despite Some Problematic Story Liberties, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Is Rousing Entertainment
This post is also available in: Français
Let’s get this out of the way first: despite its flaws, which I’ll discuss below, Bohemian Rhapsody — the biopic about legendary frontman Freddie Mercury and the band Queen — is rousing entertainment.
Anchored by a career-best performance from Rami Malek, and directed by Bryan Singer (and, after Singer was fired, Dexter Fletcher), the film covers the period of time from Mercury’s joining of a group that was then called Smile through their iconic performance at Live Aid in 1985.
Bohemian Rhapsody moves like a lightning bolt. No sooner does the band, now called Queen per Mercury’s insistence, record a demo when they are signed to a record deal, appear on Top of the Pops and then tour America. Four years and three albums are compressed into three minutes, and the film plays fast and loose with timelines and facts. They were not headliners on that maiden 1974 tour (they opened for Mott the Hoople), and they are shown performing “Fat Bottomed Girls,” a track that didn’t appear until four years later on 1978’s Jazz.
This elusive relation to facts is more problematic in the second half of the film, especially considering the remaining band members — Brian May (guitars) and Roger Taylor (drums) — consulted on Bohemian Rhapsody.
Then there’s the grousing about depiction of Mercury’s queerness, though I would argue that it’s certainly there in Malek’s performance and the script, and that Mercury’s more lascivious and notorious proclivities (the mounds of cocaine, the parties, the orgies) are referred to yet not lingered on. (When he decamps to Berlin to embark on a solo career with then-manager Paul Prenter — portrayed, with great eroticism and sexual frisson, by Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech — it’s obvious what’s going on with all those German gentlemen hangers-on in their leather gear.)
Would it have been great to see an all-male pile-on with one of rock’s greatest showmen at the center of it? Yes. Is it necessary? No.
The most egregious factual revisionism involves Mercury’s HIV diagnosis, specifically how and when he reveals it to the members of his band. According to Bohemian Rhapsody, this occurred after his exile in Berlin (while he was estranged from the band) and while they were rehearsing for their Live Aid performance and de facto comeback in 1985. But Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with HIV until 1987.
Why, then, would Anthony McCarten’s screenplay take such a liberty? The answer is simple: drama. The revelation to the band adds emotional heft and a sense of triumph to the Live Aid performance.
How do I feel about that as a gay man? Perplexed. It would have been enough to create pathos and triumph if Mercury had only suspected or feared a possible HIV infection, or there could have been any number of ways the filmmakers got to the same combination of emotions in play.
But that’s not what we have, and when I ask myself how I feel about it as a viewer (not to mention a critic), the response is both complicated and simple: it bothers me, and I also don’t really care. I don’t go to the movies for facts. (That’s a fool’s errand; read instead.) What sustains me is a sense of emotional truth, and despite everything wrong with it, Bohemian Rhapsody has that.
Rami Malek transcends the movie’s flaws (in much the same way Bette Midler did all those years ago in The Rose). Mercury — born Farrokh Bulsara in Tanzania — was a mystery to his bandmates and probably to himself; he seemed conflicted nearly any time he wasn’t onstage, where he became exactly the man he wanted to be.
Malek, himself no stranger to mystery and ambiguity on Mr. Robot, lets us see the private cracks in Mercury’s public persona. And his body language is immaculate. Having seen Queen perform twice in the late ’70s, it was uncanny watching Malek recreate Mercury’s particular hard rock camp — the poses, the phallic half-mic, the spandex!
Mercury hid in plain sight — especially after he cut his hair and grew that ’80s porn-stache — and continued to dodge questions about his sexuality until the day before he died. Yet no one was fooled. It was all part of the grand performance and the shared joke between artist and audience; a joke that, ultimately, turned tragic.
Malek gives life to this, and more. The film is imperfect. (In fact, it’s deceptive.) The script doesn’t go deep enough, like nearly every other biopic. And the other players, while they have their moments, are merely witnesses to the star at its center.
Yet for a brief moment, an amazing facsimile of a legend walks among us once more. And, for that, some gratitude is in order.