I suppose I’ll start with the good things I have to say about Bohemian Rhapsody. There really aren’t that many.
Perhaps most notable is that in spite of the well publicized troubles during production, or maybe because of them, this movie exceeds expectations — particularly from certain points of view. It opening moments in particular are fantastic: the 20th Century FOX logo with fanfare retooled to sound like Queen riffs; an opening shot of Freddie Mercury (a well cast Rami Malik) sitting up in bed and then coughing, indicating instantly where this story is ultimately going.
I hesitate to say it’s all downhill from there, but I will say it’s a steady decline, at least in light of how wildly contrived nearly every moment in this movie is. What passes for an “audition” when Mercury suddenly bursts into song at the other band members who have just lost their lead singer, as they load a van after a gig? Come on.
That said, one can argue both ways as to the effectiveness of “mainstreaming” and “straight-washing” Freddie Mercury’s tragic gay story, and in fact I did just that with the friend with whom I saw the movie. And there are certainly fair points, about there being older audiences who should see this movie — people with revisionist memories of a band they loved but with a lead singer whose sexuality they either ignored or denied. Bohemian Rhapsody makes it perfectly clear that Freddie Mercury was gay, and that he died of AIDS, and it has only empathy for him as such, as do his band mates as portrayed here. These are not insignificant things.
But here’s the sticking point for me. A movie having those noble characteristics does not alone make it good. Freddie Mercury’s sickness itself is presented in a hokey, even dopey manner. When he coughs into a white kerchief and then sees droplets of blood on it, all I could think was, Did he have “the consumption”? This isn’t Moulin Rouge! — or at least it’s not supposed to be.
Its potential for reaching audiences that might otherwise have steered away from it notwithstanding, the sanitizing of nearly every aspect of this story is difficult for me to get past. It falls into tropes of “gay storytelling” that are seriously dated, such as the idea that an audience can stomach seeing a straight couple in bed but not a gay one.
Now, to be fair, the fact of Mercury’s gayness itself is unsubtle here, and not only does he have more than one same-sex kiss, he even gets a poignantly sweet scene with the man who would later become his lifelong partner (Jim Hutton, played by Aaron McCuster). This is kind of the exception that proves the rule in this film, where so much of the story is packed into 134 minutes — a typical problem of biopics — that every part of it is glossed over, and thus denied any real depth.
It’s also nice to see Mercury’s Parsi-Indian heritage get so much play in this story; how many people even knew that about him? He isn’t shown here to have a whole lot of pride in it, though, and according to this account he willfully ignored, if not actively denied it, often rather disrespecting his parents in the process.
Mercury is portrayed here as wildly insecure in every matter except his vocal ability (he pointedly tells us his unusually large mouth allows for greater range), and one is left to wonder how accurate that really was. The same could not quite be said of his band mates, who get a fair amount of focus as a three-person unit, if not so much as individuals. Even though Mercury’s two failed solo albums are indication enough that he owed his existence to Queen as much as the band owed its existence to him, Bohemian Rhapsody resists the idea that this should be “The Freddie Mercury Story,” even though that remains effectively what it is.
So go the limitations of an”authorized biography” — the living members of the band being intimately involved in narrative choices in the telling of their story, obscuring whatever warts there were with the makeup of Hollywood movie making. Almost none of the verbal exchanges in this movie come across as authentic. But, by all accounts, audiences are loving Bohemian Rhapsody far more than critics are, and although I totally understand why, from my critical position I find myself caught in the middle. Here is what is basically a bad movie, which has a certain usefulness. On a certain, sociopolitical level, it works. From a strictly cinematic level, this is just another forgettably bland movie about a beloved rock band which transparently sidesteps the most compelling truths of their story.