Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
YIN: Bohemian Rhapsody
Always leave them wanting more.
As true a statement for a sellout show by the seminal band Queen as it is for the biopic that chronicles their trials and tribulations. The film’s garnered some mixed reactions across the interwebs, but love it or fault it, the underlying consensus is that people left the theatre wanting more. But does that burden lie on the audience or the filmmakers?
The film has had a loooonnnnggg journey to the screen, running through multiple writers, directors, and stars—the most well-known of which was Borat’s Sasha Baron Cohen’s take on the role. None of these incarnations were ever realized, seemingly because not everyone could agree on what and how to tell the story of one of the most beloved, iconic, and ground-breaking musical ensembles to have ever rocked this Earth. So is it any wonder that the end result won’t please everyone?
I can, at the very least, say it pleased the hell out of me.
But I’ll be the first to admit that I come in with a lot of bias. I’m of a particular age to have been enthralled by the band and their particular kind of magic. Not only is their music still running through my playlists today, but the band in inexorably tied to another great love of my life, Highlander (readers to this site will undoubtedly relate). Freddie Mercury, in particular, is the greatest rock vocalist to have ever graced a stage, in my humble opinion. So I’ve been shaking with anticipation to see this film, and have been following its on-again/off-again development for years.
But I’m not naïve enough to think that 2.5 hours is enough to cover everything for a man and a band so rich in lore. As a screenwriter, I understand the difficulty of such an enterprise, and I found the take here an intriguing one. The film is, unshockingly, Freddie-centric, told very much through what occurs to and around him. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the contributions of the other three members of the group were acknowledged. No, we don’t see much of their private lives, much of their personal hopes and dreams and lives outside the band. And as much as I’d love to explore all that, the filmmakers know that ultimately, there can be only one (yeah, I went there!). The focus was always going to be on the lead, and remaining band members Brain May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon seem to respect that, to a point. Each member, almost in turn, is shown providing significant influence on the music and the creation of the band’s mythos. In a battle to steal spotlight from the likes of Freddie Mercury, it’s an impressive feat and not one to be overlooked.
But as we must, we turn to that brightest of shooting stars. The movie tracks Freddie from his start as Farrokh Bulsara, Heathrow baggage handler and seemingly perpetual disappointment to his father through to his cemented status as rock god at Queen’s arguably greatest performance, the 1985 Live Aid concert. The movie itself might be considered a rock opera, as the music truly drives the film, ushering the characters along like a sonic river. And while it certainly does its best to humanize each individual, there is a heightened aspect to the film, as if careful to pay into the legend as much as the reality.
This seems to be where much of the criticism is aimed, and there’s some justification in the uproar. This is not a grounded, warts-and-all revelation, but a tribute offering some behind the scenes insight into the world of Queen and the inner life of its frontman. It’s a choice, and it’s not going to sit well with everyone. But looking at it from a higher level, it may have been a smart move. The lust for salacious details about his life was one of Freddie’s most dogging issues, and one that he had no real wish to satisfy. And therefore, offering only enough to satiate certain audiences while also taking care to exalt the legend might be seen as playing it safe, but I would argue that—in this case—it works well in the grand scheme.
That being said, there are issues to be taken. When it comes to that juiciest nugget of Freddie’s sexuality, the movie makes a few flat statements and chooses not to delve deep. The film addresses his bisexuality in strictly binary terms, first through his initial relationship with Mary Austin and then through a series of men leading to his final relationship with Jim Hutton. There’s practically no indication of an openness between the two extremes, as encapsulated in a pivotal scene in which Freddie reveals his bisexuality to Mary, who responds that he is simply “gay.” The scene has left many angry at what feels like a simplification, if not an outright dismissal of the truth. And while in that moment I felt the same, it dawned on me that any other reaction by Mary might have been anachronistic at that time. Her lack of understanding seems plausible in that climate. However, it would not and does not excuse the portrayal of Freddie as simply “gay” from that point on, and that is a definite disservice to the man. Perhaps the filmmakers succumbed to the same fear that plagued Freddie’s time, fear of something they cannot quite grasp, or fear of how audiences would take the truth. But if the movie, and the band’s legacy, contains a message, it is that you cannot let fear hold you back. It’s a shame the powers that be here could not rise to that same challenge.
That being said, the film does work on many other levels, as it strives for a visceral extravaganza rather than a sequence of narrative details. Traversing a decade of creativity, celebration, chaos, and conflict, the creators choose to offer vignettes and snippets that highlight the journey, and naturally some of the specifics become combined or even lost in their entirety. Still, it succeeds in offering a full picture of the experience, through both the laughter and the tears intrinsic to it.
The largest component of this is, of course, the actors who breathe life into these legends. When Cohen left the project, I remember rattling my brain to come up with a perfect alternative, and the choice of Rami Malek could not have been more on point. Malek already has much of the look (if a bit short), and definitely the background both ethnically and artistically. He inhabits Freddie as much as portrays him, transforming himself physically and emotionally. As with most fine actors, Malek chooses to focus on Freddie’s flaws and his humanity, finding the man under the legend. But it’s also possible he and/or the writers) take it a bit too far, as the joyous gregariousness, while certainly there, is given a backseat to the tragic loneliness of his existence. Freddie’s sexuality, in particular, is too often hidden, almost shameful, and the source of much of his inner and outer conflict. And while there most assuredly were elements of that in Freddie’s life, how much of it dominated, and how much of Freddie’s life was spent in search of his true self and true happiness, may be a matter of interpretation here that not will agree with. Still, there’s no denying the genius of Malek’s performance, and I can absolutely see accolades raining down on him come awards season.
And while the rest of the cast felt absolutely perfect for each of their roles, Gwilym Lee was a standout for me as Brian May (no relation). Not only did he seem to mold himself perfectly into the look, but provided a strong presence that balanced, even countered Malek’s Freddie. You could feel Lee as a legitimate leader to the group, a voice of sage authority and exuberance while also deadly serious about his artistic craft. He acted often as the focal point of the issues between Freddie and the rest, and Lee makes the absolute most of his screentime by stealing as much spotlight as he can.
Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello are relegated to third and fourth fiddle as Roger Taylor and John Deacon, respectively, but indeed are given moments to shine, and both actors offer their support with skill and grace.
But truly, Allen Leech’s Paul Prenter overshadows as the snake that poisons the comradery of the group. I’m impressed with Leech mostly because I hated that character so much. His duplicitous vileness was so effective that it can only be a compliment. I rooted for his booting throughout the film, and he served as an effective foil for our heroes. Likewise, when Aaron McCusker arrives on scene as Jim Hutton, he provides a perfect counterpoint, the man we cheer for Freddie to end up with, one who finally understands and supports him as a man, not just a rock star. McCusker also layers in a confidence and self-assuredness that provides the template that we wish for Freddie throughout his struggles. And in a stroke of meta-brilliance, bringing in Mike Meyers as a fictional record exec disparaging the brilliance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” brought a head-banging nod of glee.
But as one of only a handful of females in the film, Lucy Boynton bears a lot on her shoulders as the beleaguered Mary. She does an impressive job, struggling to love the man she feels she cannot, while still being there as much as she can to support him. Their story carries much of the film, and Boynton skillfully embodies not only the love, but perhaps the misunderstanding at the heart of those surrounding Freddie.