'Bohemian Rhapsody' Isn't the 100% True Legend of Freddie Mercury, and That's Okay
How can a biopic about one of the most fascinating and flamboyant performers of our time live up to the legend? It can’t. And it doesn’t have to. The most wonderful part of Bohemian Rhapsody, a film about the band Queen and its charismatic frontman, is that it’s a retelling of the essential parts of the band’s history.
Queen's guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor were creative consultants for the film, and so we're presented with the version of the story that they want us to see. There are stark departures from actual history—the cinematic version of Freddie Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS before their landmark 1985 Live Aid concert, for example, though in real life it was confirmed in 1987—but we'll concede that it gives the final twenty minutes of the film more gravitas, so as a viewer, it’s hard to begrudge the band the precious opportunity to rewrite parts of their history.
Rami Malek, who plays Freddie Mercury, was given a set of outrageous, outsized prosthetic incisors that is incredibly distracting. But Malek is electric, and, in an Oscar-contending performance, manages to convince us all that those fabled four extra incisors at the back of the fabulous frontman’s front teeth are the necessary magic to his four-octave vocal range. Malek is Mercury.
With a mastery of movement, the Egyptian actor brings Mercury (who was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, of Parsi descent) to vivid life, undulating across the screen with a tremendous energy that makes you almost forget you aren’t watching the real deal. It helps immensely that a big-haired Gwilym Lee is the spitting image of May, and that the rest of the band—Ben Hardy as Taylor, and Joe Mazzello as bassist John Deacon—aren’t bad, either. At one point, you don’t know if it is real life and if it's just fantasy.
Make no mistake, there’s a lot of fantasy. With made-up characters like Ray Foster, played to prosthetic perfection by Mike Myers; a little fudging of timelines; and the magical oversimplification of the songwriting process (Mercury is depicted as writing perfect songs in one go) Bohemian Rhapsody is less concerned about telling history than it is about piecing together fuzzily remembered key moments in the history of Queen set to the backdrop of their magnificent music. Even the 20th Century Fox fanfare is tweaked, Queen-style, setting the tone for the rest of the film.
What it does well is convince viewers that Queen did better as a band than other major acts that implode in the face of their frontman's solo career. The film pins the blame solely on former manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who became Mercury’s lover, and whose influence on Mercury was believed to have led to his wild, partying ways and fractured his relationship with the band.
Much of Mercury’s extravagance behind the scenes is toned down, focusing instead on the quiet moments rather than his reported carousel of hundreds of lovers and excessive parties. One of the most special parts of the film is the insight into Mercury’s relationship with former lover and lifelong friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who stayed by Mercury’s side throughout his life. One poignant scene encapsulates the loneliness that Mercury must’ve grappled with and the pain Austin endured: as they started living apart, Mercury would still look to Austin, hoping to keep her by his side as he changed. His relationship with her is one of the purest, most touching things in the film, a remarkable love that persisted beyond sexual inclination.
There’s a permeating loneliness through Bohemian Rhapsody that undercuts all the flamboyance. It undercuts even the majesty of the music. Freddie Mercury’s journey of self-discovery, realizing his attraction to men, is painful to witness. The exploration of his sexuality is subdued, with very little sex happening at all, but manages to convey the hardships of a gay man in the 80’s. Mercury was beleaguered by rumors surrounding his lifestyle that eclipsed Queen’s music.
Directed by an also-beleaguered Bryan Singer who left three-quarters after shooting principal photography, the film was finished by Dexter Fletcher. The end result is nearly seamless. Cinematography is by longtime Singer collaborator Newton Thomas Sigel, and his reimagining of the Live Aid performance is inspired and powerful. The retro graphics following the band’s world tour is cheeky and fun.
There’s a sequence with Mercury walking out the door after being diagnosed with AIDS and he’s stopped by a fan who recognizes him with, “Ay-O!” and it’s heartwrenching. Little moments like these, crafted purely for the drama, are what allows the film to fill the gaps in an extraordinary history. It’s these small fictions and oversimplifications that make the story problematic from a purely biographical standpoint, but cinematically, it helps tighten the story.
Bohemian Rhapsody is, if anything, a celebration of an extraordinary life with extraordinary music, told through a thoughtful and tender lens. Queen fans may hate it, they may love it, but it stands on its own as an unpretentious tale of a kind of magical band and its frontman.