Film Review – Bohemian Rhapsody
Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic widely known to have been addled by production delays, recasts, and firings, emerges like a diamond-clad diva drunk at a party, barely held together by string and champagne, egged on by the fruits of her own legend, a show within a show. As much a commentary on the structure of the genre film as the veracity of any story of fame and celebrity, it has moments of dizzying brilliance when we see why such a film was warranted, punctured by repeated bits of self-aware schmaltz. Two lines of the film’s dialogue, spaced far apart, illustrate such dichotomy: “I decide who I am,” says Freddie Mercury to the fellow members of Queen before their legendary Live Aid performance in 1985. Years before, he had told an admirer (and later hanger-on), “You only see what you want to see.” Director Bryan Singer can’t seem to make up his mind as to which line he will adhere.
As for the casting of Freddie Mercury, the iconic frontman née Farrokh Bulsara to Parsi parents in Zanzibar before relocating to London, Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek achieves the awesome task of capturing his legendary style, stage persona, mannerisms, and grace to a degree of perfection that bolsters even the sluggish of scenes. During the concert performances, Malek surveys each stage as a project in graphic design – which Mercury had studied – gauging his distance from the audience and the other band members, sensing the atmosphere and the relationship between costume and choreography (applause for costume designer Julian Day and choreographer/movement coach Polly Bennett). Mercury was a full-body singer, as physically expressive as he was vocally brilliant, and each space was his to command and conquer.
It was here that he revealed to his audiences what he could not openly share off-stage, on regular days and quieter moments. Singer’s treatment of Mercury’s sexuality is sometimes puzzling, other times misdirected. His relationship with Mary Austin (played with warmth and understanding by Lucy Boynton) is tenderly shown, but as Mercury’s desire for and draw towards male companionship becomes more evident, the tonal incongruity in the treatment of these two aspects of his life clashes with the essence of the man’s heart and soul poured into his music and showmanship. The one exception of Freddie connecting positively with another gay man is Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who shares the burden of hiding who he is from his family and community. We see far less of Jim than we should, even though one of the footnotes during the end credits said they were together until Mercury’s death in 1991, and as such we see far less of Freddie’s true identity in the quieter moments than we deserve.
Queen has always thrived in large and boisterous and flamboyant performances, whipping the crowd into the silvery swirl of its musical theatrics, and in this respect the film does not disappoint. Here, the movie theater was alive with people clapping and singing along, energized by the bass and Mercury’s operatic vocals and Brian May’s razor-blade guitar. Fun and cheeky and fabulously decadent, Malek and the boys, including Gwilym Lee (who could be May’s clone), adorable Ben Hardy playing drummer Roger Taylor, and Joseph Mazzello as bassist John Deacon, seem to be having a ball together and their chemistry is fantastic both on stage and in the studio. Hardy nearly brought the house down from laughter over his “Galileo!” scene during the recording of the titular track. Whatever tiffs or annoyances the bandmates had with each other, once the guitars were plugged in and the studio lights went on, they came together and created joy, and the audience breathlessly feels that as well.
During the “business” side of the band’s scenes, less joy is shared as the manager, lawyer, studio heads, and other suits decide how much of the band’s flamboyance and power is appropriate for the revenue stream. As the film progresses, so does the sentimentality of the bandmates’ dialogue, speaking almost as commentators on a Behind the Music episode of themselves rather than a natural flow between old friends who see each other’s warts and all.
Above all, Malek certainly drives the film forward by his captivating work, eschewing the usual pomp of a VH1-style recreation of an musical icon in favor of a more intimate study of a man forever within and without his surreal world of fame, creativity, and decadence. From the scene where he plays the keyboard upside down (reminiscent of Mozart in Amadeus) to the subtle ways he covered his prominent overbite during interviews or speaking to strangers, Malek understands Mercury’s constant balance of immeasurable talent and selective persona, of including the audience in his embrace of sound and feeling while existing in a bubble half-created, half-forced upon him. To play any icon is like walking a tightrope above a rapaciously protective fanbase, but Malek embodies the man and the mystery he both detested and promoted.