By Saadia Peerzada, UG 22 Music, with its lyrics, emotions, and melody, is often a personal
Kiana Manian, Class of 2021
Queen’s 1975 single “Bohemian Rhapsody” is regarded as one of the greatest songs of all time. The six-minute suite is a powerful musical story, combining ballad, opera, and hard rock — seemingly disjointed but nothing short of magic. The 2018 movie of the same name is more of a romp through Queen’s Greatest Hits than a biopic. The movie fails to have the same impact as its namesake. The trailer claimed that the only thing more extraordinary than their music was their frontman, Freddie Mercury’s story, and while that may be the case, the storytelling in this movie failed to do justice to the legendary musician.
Stylistically, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t sure of what it is. Sometimes a ‘gritty and honest’ view into the perils of fame; at others, a dysfunctional family drama about four people who, at the end of the day, love each other and make phenomenal music. All throughout, the movie becomes white noise at a dingy karaoke bar urging people to sing along with grating rainbow lyrics that in no way fit with the dramatic and realistic aesthetic the film tries to establish. The narrative is unfocused, with multiple storylines built up to no climax. We get no character development, no resolution of conflict, just snappy one-liners that detract from the gravity that the storytelling could have achieved. Many scenes are nothing but unnecessary reminders of Queen’s unique place in rock ’n’ roll hall of fame and added nothing to the story but self-congratulation.
What saves the movie are the performances. The actors play off each other with great ease, their chemistry palpable. The highlight for me was the beautifully essayed relationship between Freddie Mercury and Mary Austin, owing to the performances of Rami Malek and Lucy Boynton. Their realistic depiction of two people with an endless love for each other but nowhere to go with it gave some poignant moments. Maybe the whole “love of my life” refrain was a little tedious, but the ups and downs of their great non-romance were enough to make a great movie in itself.
While Mercury’s relationship with Austin bolsters much of the narrative, what is problematic is that the end of their romance is treated as the tragedy of him being gay. Having read a review before watching the movie myself, I was sceptical about how the movie would approach Mercury’s sexuality and struggles with immigrant identity. The tokenism, stereotyping, and a careless attitude towards real struggles faced by a real person are hard to forgive. His parents and family exist only as a reminder of his Parsi origins. The Zoroastrian philosophy of ‘good thoughts, good deeds, good words’ is repeated many times only for the tiniest payoff. What could be a heartfelt reconciliation between Freddie and his father ends up coming across as forced and unrealistic. Mercury’s exploration and discovery of his sexual identity is portrayed through a sex and drug-fueled stupor that lacks the care and depth that his relationship with Austin received. This cannot simply be attributed to a problem in the director’s vision, Bryan Singer being an openly gay man himself, but it certainly falls prey to the problematic notions that conflate queerness with excess and promiscuity. Going from being in a straight, monogamous relationship to having liaisons with a frenzy of men, including his “villainous” manager Paul Prenter, portrays his sexuality in a negative light. His relationship with Jim Hutton, in reality as serious, long and loving as his relationship with Austin, is not given its due. The movie seems to be in a hurry to establish it, conveniently forgets about it midway and suddenly picks it up to tie loose ends.
And, of course, there is Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis, which the movie blatantly uses as a dramatic device. Following from his promiscuous days, the illness is made to seem like another misgiving of his sexual orientation, a seminal moment of reconciliation with his bandmates, and a segue to the final Live Aid performance. In actuality (as I said, I don’t care about accuracy, I care about truth), his diagnosis came after the concert, and Live Aid was not a final goodbye or a poetic moment of revelation and closure. It was unfair to reduce the disease that took his life to a convenient plot point.
On a final note, Rami Malek had the mammoth task of becoming Freddie Mercury and, he did not disappoint! Though there were moments when you couldn’t escape the rushed story and contrived navigation, he never ceased to amaze and successfully carried the entire second half (a considerably better half) on his bedazzled shoulders. His delivery is flawless and he walks the line of tortured and fantastic, very sweet and vulnerable with care. Even in a movie that pays no attention to character development, Malek is as whole as he can be.
Ultimately, what’s disappointing about Bryan Singer’s love letter to the iconic band is that it fails to rise to the challenge of capturing the greatness of Mercury’s journey. It didn’t do what Queen did best — stand out from their contemporaries and completely captivate an audience. That’s not to say that the film isn’t enjoyable or that there weren’t good moments, but Bohemian Rhapsody never truly realises its vision to memorialize Queen or Mercury’s legacy, in all its glory. More than anything, it is a medley of Queen’s most popular numbers driving the story. For some, Bohemian Rhapsody may be the foot-stomping celebration promised to fans, but the extraordinary story of Freddie Mercury is “yet to have its finest hour”. I hope it’s coming soon.
The author is a staff writer for the Arts & Culture column of the Edict.