The vile, exploitative Bohemian Rhapsody turns the life of Freddie Mercury into a commercial for CDs
Queen doesn’t understand Freddie Mercury.
It’s become clear in the years since his untimely death from AIDS that Mercury’s own band is incapable of comprehending the importance of his legacy, the depth of his talent, or the connection he fostered with millions of fans. All they’ve ever really understood is that they were nothing without him. So, rather than face their history with the man who made them Queen with any sort of honesty, they’ve commodified his memory to keep the band, and their income, alive. To them, Freddie Mercury was never just a human being. He was a a god, a genius, an eccentric, a man tortured by his sexuality. All narratives they can control, and better yet, narratives they could sell.
Hence why it took years of development hell to churn out Bohemian Rhapsody, a band-controlled biopic directed by the massively overrated (and likely criminal) Bryan Singer (he was fired near the end of the project for “personal reasons”, but the DGA requires his name be retained on the film) that retells the events of Mercury’s life from his early days with the group up until their now legendary performance at Live Aid. The band, primarily guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, were frequently unhappy with the creative choices behind piles of scripts presented to them about their late leader, and it’s clear now they were waiting for a take more in line with their Freddie Mercury marketing plan. Well now it’s arrived, and the result is an ugly piece of revisionism, an outright lie design to sell more records and further muddy the waters of the increasingly troubling legend told to us about this profoundly talented artist.
Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) slips into Mercury’s shoes, and it’s hard to deny that he nails the impersonation, capturing all the cheeky energy of the singer’s love for performing. He’s best in the musical scenes, where he recreates the pure exuberance of Mercury’s stage persona with bravura. The performance falls apart slightly in some of the film’s quieter moments, mostly due to the fact the script asks Malek to portray Mercury as a twitchy caricature, the sort of character who is on the edge of bursting every waking moment of their life. It’s a fine performance, but it’s so steeped in dishonesty it’s difficult to truly appreciate.
Outside of Malek, the film is a travesty. It’s filled to the brim with every biopic trope imaginable: road trip montages, drug fueled orgies, studio showdowns, cranky record producers (Mike Myers plays an EMI figurehead in a pandering nod to Wayne’s World, just one of this film’s many misfires). Major events in the band’s history come and go at a breakneck pace, feeling more like a collection of underwritten vignettes than any meaningful exploration of the band’s creative process or Mercury’s backstory. The dramatic elements have it all, too: stock parents with corny, discouraging speeches, tense media junkets, and arguments in the rain. It even has the real-life pictures of the band at the end! It’s as if all involved watched 2007’s Walk Hard, John C. Reilly’s near perfect parody of the music biography roadmap, and didn’t get the joke. Even more insulting than the laziness in its plotting is its propensity to play fast and loose with the facts, from Mercury meeting the band mere minutes after their original singer quit to clearly dramatized spats leading to the creation of their some greatest songs. Most egregious is the film positing that Mercury’s drive for playing Live Aid was his AIDS diagnosis, despite the fact that Mercury didn’t actually find out he had contracted the disease until two years after the fact. The decision exploits Mercury’s suffering at the hands of the disease, all in the name of “creative license”. It again lets Queen control the narrative surrounding Mercury, further selling their performing legacy. The Live Aid scene is admittedly effective, but it’s offset by a context of exploitation.
As if the plot decisions weren’t bad enough, it’s worth noting that the film is borderline homophobic, portraying the gay culture of the 80s with every stereotype about LGBT people imaginable. Mercury’s gradual acceptance of his sexuality is littered with truck stop meetings, leather clad sex bars, and even sexual harassment on his own part. The film even seems to blame Mercury’s sexuality as the force that drives the band apart, fueling his drug use and opening him to manipulation from his gay manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech, Downton Abbey). It’s an outdated at best, offensive at worst exploration that takes advantage of the lack of details due to his close guarding of his personal life, then slut-shames Mercury and entire communities of people. It allows Queen to remove themselves from any blame surrounding the band’s troubles, instead diverting the drama to the so-called flamboyance and ego of gay Freddie Mercury. Maybe there’s some truth to Mercury’s arrogance, but seemingly blaming that self-centered nature on his identity as a gay man only makes the rest of the band look prejudiced and petty.
Nobody was asking for an exposé when this film was announced. Music biopics don’t have to be warts-and-all takedowns of the legacies of the musicians they depict. However, they do have a responsibility to strive for honesty. Bohemian Rhapsody is a film that pays no mind to the truth. To it, and Queen themselves, the legend is better than reality, no matter how ugly that legend may be. This rendition of their focus-group approved appropriation of Freddie Mercury'‘s life has all the good intentions of a snake oil salesman, the artistry of a Queen-themed slot machine. This isn’t a film, it’s a commercial that reduces the legacy of a man and turns him into a glitzed-up greeting card in the process. Those he trusted are to blame.