I briefly thought about including Bohemian Rhapsody as part of my “Queer Classics” series of blog posts, but after a lot of thinking I decided to just give it a regular “film review” designation, mostly because the queer content is so understated that one would be forgiven for not even being able to notice it at all.
If you haven’t seen the film, it is essentially the story of how Freddie Mercury, played with almost unearthly accuracy by Rami Malek, became the lead singer of Queen. It follows a pretty traditional biopic structure, with the meet-cute between Mercury and the other members of the band, their trials and eventual triumph, their feuds with one another and, of course, their reconciliation. Oh, and there is some indication that Mercury was gay.
I do see the criticisms that some have lodged that the film pathologizes queerness by attributing the band’s feud to the sinister machinations of Paul Prenter, who leads Mercury into the sinister world of queer desire. More significant, I think, is the fact that Prenter is such a thinly-constructed character that we struggle to understand why it is that he would have such an outsize influence on Mercury, to such an extent that he basically abandons his bandmates. As queer villains go, he’s not even that interesting (which is a shame, because Allan Leech is a decent actor). If they were going to make the queerest character a villain, you’d think they would have at least made him compelling.
Indeed, one of my frustrations with the film stems from its narrative incoherence. It can never really decide whether it wants to be a biopic of Freddie Mercury (which seems its primary interest), the band Queen (which it sort of is), or both (which it really fails to do because it can’t find a balance). The rest of the band emerge as half-characters at best, not insignificant enough to fade utterly into the background yet with no real depth either. A generous reading of the film would say this is a deliberate attempt to show the vexed nature of the band’s relationship, but I’m honestly not sure the film deserves that much.
Likewise, it can’t really seem to decide how to express Mercury’s sexuality. Though the film seems to want to argue that Mercury was gay, to many (including me) this seems to ignore the fact that he was most likely bisexual (bi-erasure is a real thing, y’all). It was also frustrating that the film gave so much narrative time to the fictional character of Prenter and all of his chicanery when that time would have been better spent fleshing out the relationship between Mercury and his partner Jim Hutton. The fact that it doesn’t says a lot about how narratively lazy the film is, and how uncertain it is about what role Mercury’s sexuality played in his life and how it should be represented in the present.
At the formal level, the film is exquisitely shot, and as I was watching it I kept hitting the pause button so that I could simply take in the beautifully composed shots. Given the grossness of Bryan Singer, I’m reluctant to belabor this particular point, but I console myself with the fact that there are others, including the cinematographer, who no doubt helped to get the film’s perfect looks.
Similarly, the performances are almost uniformly excellent, but of course it is Rami Malek who really steals the show. This is definitely one of those cases where an actor is very deserving of his Best Actor Oscar. Malek doesn’t just perform the role of Mercury; he literally seems to embody him. In fact, there were several times in the film when I could swear that I was watching Mercury himself. Whatever the weaknesses of the script, Malek does a great deal to make up for it, and he deserves a lot of credit for making the film work as well as it does.
At the end of the day, it seems to me that Bohemian Rhapsody is exceptional for being so unexceptional. It doesn’t really break any of the established rules for biopics, and that’s okay. If you go in with a reasonable set of expectations for what you’re about to see, then you probably will not be disappointed.