As Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek) prepares to take the stage at Wembley Stadium for 1985’s Live Aid concert, he does so alone, never turning to face the camera. In one sweeping shot, we are told how utterly alone Freddie was.
Or at least, how lonely he was according to the movie.
From the onset of Bohemian Rhapsody, the audience is told what this is to be: The tragic and grandiose tale of Freddie Mercury. And from the onset, it tells us that liberties are going to be taken for the sake of storytelling.
At a runtime of 2h14, the movie feels like it was trying to cover too much of the myth behind the man and the band he fronted in too little time, as 20 years of history are compressed into the runtime. It therefore relies on the myth of the genius, as well as anecdotal tales and complete fabrications with regards to certain elements of some of the band’s iconic moments. This has the impact of delivering too much and too little all at once, and does not provide with enough to understand the reality of the group and Freddie’s struggles as they grow. All the while, there appears to be much moralizing and even score settling occuring throughout the movie, while simultaneously trying to be uplifting.
There is an awkward yet boastful confidence characterised by Rami Malek’s interpretation of Freddie Mercury. A seeming contradiction maybe, but more likely a contraction of the extravagant persona Freddie bore onstage and his actual introverted self. And this we see from his first spoken scenes.
When we first properly meet young Freddie Mercury, he is an awkward, but very much sassy, queen. He responds to his father’s plea of “Good words, good thoughts, good deeds” with “And what have those brought you?”, which makes him appear brash and aloof, rather than sympathetic and humble. The formation of the band soon to be known as Queen seemingly occurs in a parking lot after their original lead singer and bass player quits the band. At which Freddie convinces them of adding him as singer by singing one of their melodies then and there, leading them into a perfect harmony. His meeting with long-time friend and lover, Mary Austin, whom he met through guitarist Brian May, is instead framed as a fated meeting in the backstage area, leading to his meeting with the rest of the band. Moments like these permeate the movie, and it does not do full justice to the man portrayed, the man portraying him, and the friends, family and bandmates surrounding them.
Don’t get me wrong: Rami Malek’s performance is exactly what would be expected of him. There’s a air of calm cool that presented at most times, and the moments of awkward shyness feel definitely honest. Gwilym Lee is a picture-perfect Brian May. Lucy Bonyton does a wonderful job as Freddie’s love of his life (but a note on this later), Mary Austin. Meanwhile Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor appears to never age, always keeping a youthful look to him. The casting of Mike Myers as fictional EMI owner Ray Foster ironically stating that “Bohemian Rhapsody will never be that song [that teenagers bang their heads to in their car]” was a cute, if ultimately cynical choice.
It bears mentioning that this film could have used a lengthier runtime. If anything, the band could have received the trilogy treatment: the first movie covering the band’s formation, struggles and rise to fame; the second dealing with the struggles of maintaining artistic creativity, while also becoming larger than life, and culminating with Freddie learning of his HIV diagnosis; the third one, then, would focus on Freddie coping with the news, and the band’s final years and preparation towards the Live Aid concert. A sweeping epic for an epic band would have been much more fitting than the compressed time we received.
It would have made for a better paced story, but it would have still contradicted the reality of the band.
Instead we get to see rushed moments of seeming greatness. The ripping (rather than breaking) of the microphone from its stand. The recording of an album over the course of 30 sleepless hours (following the brash decision to sell the broken tour van). The writing of the titular song is presented almost like a glorious exultation, rarther than the culmination of years of writing; the writing of songs like “Another One Bites The Dust” and “We Will Rock You” give us a glimpse of some of the thought process behind the writing, while still being rushed through. And for a band that’s known for its larger than life performances, the shows feel surprisingly empty.
The movie’s greatest culprits are those that deal with elements of Freddie’s life before the band, and with regards to his sexuality. His time as Farook Bulsara (his birthname) is glossed over very rapidly, and the reasons for his family’s departure of Zanzibar is chalked up to “Muslim oppression”, which is not only historically and factually inaccurate but also a dangerous perpetuation of myths around Muslims (the kind of myths that lead to things like a “muslim ban” in the U.S.A.)
And it’s the treatment of his sexuality that’s most troubling. At one point during the movie, after having a number of brushes with men in which he expresses a shame at his attaction (itself a known trope), he eventually comes to a realisation about himself which takes the prodding of then-partner Mary. He exclaims “I’m bisexual”, to which she tells him “No, Freddie! You’re gay!”(another trite trope). One would imagine that he would know to whom he is and can be attracted to (He was famously quoted for saying he’s “had more lovers than Liz Taylor”) but it’s left to his best friend and love of his life to tell him what he is because she knows him better than he does, and everyone else knew it already.. His relationship with Jim Hutton is glossed over, as the details of their real-life romance would have clashed with the melodrama created around Freddie’s troubled relationship with then-manager Paul Frenter.
This, and its treatment of his final moments, ironically flies in the face of statements made both by the real and the portrayed Freddie mercury. He never publicised his private and sexual life, but he never hid from it. And when the HIV diagnosis was made, he didn’t want to be made into a tragic poster boy for the disease. Bohemian Rhapsody, then, ends up contradicting his life wishes for the sake of the typical Hollywood story of the gay gone tragically dead due to a case of too much sex.
None of this is unsurprising, really. The production for Bohemian Rhapsody is famously troubled, having gone many years in development hell, before eventually landing on Rami Malek as Freddie and Bryan Singer as director, until the latter was fired two weeks before filiming was meant to wrap, seemingly because of troublesome and absentee behaviour on set. This could explain the strange pacing issues, and muddled plotting, but this knowledged doesn’t save it from its end result.
Still, fans of the band will find enjoyment in seeing “Freddie” perform, and act, and be for the first time on the big screen since his passing in 1991. And Live Aid re-creation concert, which is a near-perfect re-creation of the actual show (with the exceptional inclusion of “Love Of My Life”), is a spectacle worth dealing with the preceding 2/3rds.
In the end, Freddie completes his tale echoing his father’s words in his life: “Good words, good thoughts, good actions”. As he prepares to take the stage to Live-Aid, we see now that he accompanied by his constructed family. He turns to them, and they share a hug before giving the crowd the show of their lives.
Through the Live-Aid concert, the impact his life had on his friends, family, and millions around the world, Freddie leaves the world having left his mark on a generation, giving it a voice. Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie may be a trite, shallow affair, it still to give something back to those that society had deemed to be different. Not much, maybe, but maybe a little bit of a dream that someone could rise to the occasion, and punch the sky.
If you’re looking for a more accurate (but maybe less exciting) look at Freddie Mercury’s life & Queen’s evolution, give the documentary Mercury Rising a look.