Tara Coughlin ’19 | Contributing Writer
“You can do anything with my legacy, but never make me boring.” The legendary singer and frontman of Queen, Freddie Mercury, was quoted as saying this before his tragic death from AIDS-related causes in 1991. This writer believes that even the most aggressive attempt to make Freddie Mercury’s story boring would be impossible. “Bohemian Rhapsody” — a biographical movie about Queen — is entertaining, but beneath its flashy surface, it is as hollow and clichéd as Mercury was complex and revolutionary. The film’s fun yet disappointing result can be attributed to a number of factors: pre-production limbo, cast changes, director replacements and questionable narrative choices regarding the singer’s sexuality. All of this culminates in an ultimately forgettable movie. But this movie is about Freddie Mercury — how is that possible?
The film begins with the world-famous Mercury (Rami Malek) gearing up to play at the Live Aid benefit concert in 1985. The story is then told in a series of flashbacks beginning in 1970, when the flamboyant Mercury was Farrokh Bulsara, a shy airport baggage handler facing racial slurs from coworkers and disapproving looks from his traditional Parsi father. Rather than dutifully staying at home, the restless Mercury eagerly gives an impromptu audition for a small British band called Smile. Brian, the guitarist (Gwilym Lee); Roger, the drummer (Ben Hardy); and John, the bassist (Joseph Mazzello), are all impressed enough to have him join as their lead singer. While the band plays in local pubs, Mercury meets and falls in love with one of the most important people in his life: a gentle young woman named Mary (Lucy Boynton), who inspires him to compose the song “Love of My Life.” Eventually, the band secures a contract and produces the album with the movie’s titular song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which the film quite humorously points out was critically panned on its release. The film then proceeds to hit the beats for the rise, fall and redemption story arc while the complexity of the characters is stifled by clichéd and banal dialogue.
That being said, Malek is quite good as Mercury, and it’s a shame he didn’t receive a better script. Though some might be distracted by Malek’s false set of teeth, his mannerisms are completely transformative, as he convincingly portrays a man who was both professionally confident to the point of arrogance and insecure and lonely in his personal life. He portrays Mercury with heartbreaking vulnerability as he comes to terms with his sexuality. When the singer eventually comes out to Mary as bisexual, she counters his claim by declaring that he is gay. The scenes with Mercury and Mary carry the most emotional weight, as he struggles to have her in his life all the while not quite knowing how to have her. However, the emotional complexity of Mercury’s relationship with his bandmates does not translate to the film. Queen fans will recognize the band members’ trademark characteristics. Brian, the educated astrophysicist, is the smart one! Roger, the blonde, handsome drummer is the playboy! John, the quiet one, is the one nobody remembers! Their early scenes together as scrappy college kids trying to make an album in the English countryside carries a humorous lightness as they banter and make music. Sadly, this dissipates quickly as Mercury succumbs to drugs and loneliness. He and the band are left to petty bickering before breaking up in an overblown scene that involves Mercury dramatically staring out of at least three different windows before declaring, “I don’t need anybody!” and storming out.
The most enjoyable moments in the movie are undoubtedly the concert scenes which culminate in a full recreation of the band’s historic Live Aid performance. Watching these scenes in a packed theatre as the audience members clapped and swayed to the music gave me feelings of both sadness and happiness, as I realized that even though this was the closest that I would ever come to seeing a Queen concert, their music will always be as powerful and enjoyable to me as ever. While the film falls short in conveying the depth of Mercury’s personal struggles and his complexity, it does successfully convey the power of Queen’s music and the story of a young immigrant man becoming one of the most legendary singers of all time.