When I was a kid my dad’s favourite album was Queen: Greatest Hits. In our living room we had a fancy hi-fi which could hold 3 CDs in it at once. Well, two, considering the top spot was reserved for that record. My older brother had cassettes of pop music which he played on a small tinny sounding thing in his bedroom. In family spaces it was basically either Queen, or church music. I listened to a lot of Queen — but only their greatest hits.
It was, it seems, ample preparation for watching Bohemian Rhapsody. Possibly the most insipid musical biopic since last year’s England is Mine. A film that seems to be the cinematic equivalent of a Greatest Hits album, a sanitised and smoothed over version of a creative output, artificially designed to maximise public appeal. Remaining Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor are both credited as producers on the project, one can feel that they may have gotten too close to the material.
The texture understands that the immigrant, showman, queer Mercury is by far the most interesting figure and an obvious lead. Rami Malek throws himself into the role with a mouth full of fake teeth and this wondrous dynamic physicality. He dominates the stage like an actual rock star and sells the transformation into his nervous and mannered private persona. Yet the script serves to frustratingly contrive his movements through the world in order to sell us a satisfying narrative of his life.
There’s this a wonderful air of convenience to everything going on here. From Mercury himself forming the band by singing to May and Taylor the very evening that their former frontman and collaborator abandoned them, to the astonishingly busy morning’s activities that we are expected to believe he wrapped up before taking to the Live Aid stage at the climax. The man’s ability to tie up the plotlines of his life some years before his death is truly admirable.
The film openly winks at its artifice constantly. Most notably a far too extended cameo by Mike Myers who seems to only be inserted into the proceedings for a Wayne’s World gag. All detractors are snapped back at and mocked. A scene following the release of the track Bohemian Rhapsody itself is interrupted by floating quotes from underwhelmed contemporary music critics, as if to say, ‘See, we were right all along.’ For a rags to riches story very little hardship seems to have been encountered; the enterprise being swept along by a combination of talent and bravado.
Especially in the recording studio, the creation of art apparently is an affair that is without exception enjoyable, fulfilling and fun. The closest we see to a creative disagreement is a relatively benign argument about the merits of disco which is immediately silenced by bassist John Deacon hammering out the riff for Another One Bites the Dust. It’s basically treated as a joke and is about the only major action that Deacon (himself unattached to the film) will contribute throughout its running time.
Too protective of the band, the joint finds its drama in the place that doesn’t really have the power to defend itself. The personal life of Freddy Mercury. Here we run off of the rails. The film suggests that the band is the ultimate good in his life, the ideal state of his being. There’s this repeated Fast & Furious-esque riff between them, ‘We’re family.’ and what is it that keeps the family apart?
Well, it all comes down to the fact that the man is gay. We are shown how his sexuality alienates him from his friends, cultivates and enables his worst tendencies, and entraps him with this abusive snake of a lover who is only into him for the money. And, of course, he pays the ultimate price — contracting AIDS, dying, breaking up the family for good.
It’s all presented moralistically. The good members of the band, respectable, straight laced — literally is some scenes, palling about with their spouses in the recording studio wearing cardigans. While the bad queer must spend his time in exile, in Munich, descending into the bowels of the Earth in order to explore the leather scene (which is obviously presented in the most kinkshamey way imaginable). When he finally enters the clinic for the inevitable it’s as though they redressed a fucking church.
Although presumably not, as a few scenes later, returning to the fold finds him now apparently sober in an actual literal church. (We’re deep into spoiler territory now btw) Maybe those visual metaphors just got mixed. It’s under this dappled light that in an invented scene we see him lay himself bare, come clean about his condition. He prostrates himself before his straight companions so the audience can see how magnanimous and enlightened they are.
And the script has the fucking gall to have him say something like ‘I don’t want to be their pity case, their tragedy.’ When guess fucking what? That’s what y’all are doing. That’s what you’re doing in that scene you hypocrite pricks. At least they don’t make him straight, they only do the next worse thing and have a straight woman be the unwitting victim of his queer perversion. Lucy Boynton is fine in the role, she makes all the conflicted faces that are expected of her.
The film got a lot of press during production due to the firing of the (still credited director) Bryan Singer. As far as I am aware he was both unprofessional and a creep, probably had it coming for a while. Dexter Fletcher took over as his replacement. Yet, while the blame for this travesty is impossible to fully divvy up between them, I can feel fairly certain that anything produced using this screenplay would have always been trash. Good job Anthony McCarten.
Bohemian Rhapsody is currently screening in UK cinemas.