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February 26, 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody

by Franz Patrick


Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” reaches a climax at London’s Wembley Stadium when Queen is seconds from performing live on stage for Live Aid, an initiative designed to raise funds for those affected by famine in Ethiopia. For fifteen to twenty minutes straight it is a majestic rock concert and it made me wish that the director had made a fictionalized concert film instead of a biographical drama. The reason is because whenever the picture shifts behind the band’s human drama, especially when it attempts to explore Freddie Mercury’s personal life, it is so generic, so sanitized, that it is painful and awkward to sit through at times. And yet—the work deserves a recommendation because Rami Malek’s performance as Queen’s lead singer (née Farrokh Bulsara) is spearheaded with great elan.

Some may claim that Malek looks so much like Mercury in the film. I disagree; I think the physical resemblance is only about fifty to sixty percent. What is highly similar, however, is that colossal and infectious energy during performances on stage as well as the small but crucial moments when Malek is required to communicate the subject’s crippling loneliness despite being a part of the biggest band on the planet. The magic is in how Malek has found a way not only to channel that specific Mercurian energy but how he shapes it, almost like Play-Doh, depending on what the script requires. Still, there is only so much an actor can do given a limited and unimaginative screenplay.

Biographical dramas are not easy to pull off; it is not simply going from one landmark to the next with little regard to the journey it takes to get there. The screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, uses Queen’s singles like signposts. It creates the illusion of a fast pacing but when one stops and considers the various contexts of, for instance, disagreements among band members, Freddie choosing to estrange himself from his traditional Parsi family, Freddie’s complicated relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and how it clashes with his sexual attraction to men, nearly every element comes across as superficial, made-for-TV fluff. It lacks realism. The drama unfolds over the course of fifteen years, but it is difficult to invest in it emotionally when nostalgia for the songs are taken out of the equation. What results is a watchable but crippled biographical drama.

Singer handles Mercury’s sexuality like a sledgehammer to the groin. Watch carefully. When the director is unable to contextualize the subject’s homosexuality with using only the camera, he makes sure to capture extended glances between men (more than five times—at the very least), the slow closing of the male restroom door, or men licking their lips a certain way. It is so elementary, somewhat offensive, certainly reductive, and entirely laughable. I felt as though Singer is so afraid to take risks on how to interpret or show his subject’s sexuality, he chooses instead to distance himself by using the tired, boring, and outdated tropes. It is all the more frustrating because the subject (Queen the band and Mercury as a queer individual) is bold, challenging, unafraid to think outside the box. I wished Singer challenged himself just as much as, or at least a fraction of, how Queen is willing to fight for their vision as artists.

Historical inaccuracies aside, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is entertaining in parts (Malek’s performance is worth a look) but entirely conventional, certainly shallow. Somehow the filmmakers have failed to remind themselves that this is a story of a band that changed the face of rock and roll. I felt inspired by the picture only when Queen’s music is playing; when there is silence it is not only deafening but empty. In the near future, I imagine the film playing on television and viewers would pay attention only when the band is making music. The dramatic scenes could be put on mute and it would not change the overall experience.

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