Don't you hear my call though you're many years away...
This review will include spoilers, but most of the details I will be discussing are actual facts that can be found in various documentaries and biographies. I won’t go into specific scene descriptions, so not to worry!
I loved the film Bohemian Rhapsody. As a huge fan (maybe not a SUPER fan, but definitely a semi-super fan) of Queen, it was exciting to see a film highlighting the triumphs of the band, idealizing their victories and focusing on the strength of their bond as a found family. I love that stuff. It may seem sappy or sanitized, but I thought the film did what it was made to do: lend tribute to an incredible performer and an insanely talented band, and pay homage to the loyalty they had for one another.
I will start by saying this piece can in no way be called feminist. The only female characters with any significance to the story are Mary Austin and perhaps Freddie’s mother and sister, if peripherally. Brian and Roger’s first wives are named but they appear only one time each, and while John’s wife makes a couple of appearances she is never addressed or spoken to by name. There are a couple memorable moments of blatant sexism, but for the most part, outside of Mary Austin, women don’t feature largely in this film. I don’t believe every story needs to, and because this is inspired by four real life men (who individually don’t really win any feminist awards...this is the band that hired a bunch of models to ride bicycles in the nude for a music video…), it would be difficult to maneuver a feminist message into it. But that is a deciding factor in much of the media I choose to consume, so it’s worth considering.
It’s also worth considering that many critic reviews take umbrage with the way Freddie’s sexuality is portrayed. This one is difficult for me. Freddie Mercury was undoubtedly a complicated man. He described himself in private conversations as bisexual once that we know of, and as gay, at least once, but never labeled himself in public. He used his relationship with Mary as a front for many years, even while loving her deeply. He had two very significant and intimate relationships with women, and many relationships and hookups with men. I know bisexuality is not 50/50, that there are nuances and variations. I also understand that it’s difficult to portray bisexuality, because if you show someone with someone of the same gender they are labeled as gay, but show them with the opposite gender and they are seen as hetero. That doesn’t mean they are any less bisexual, or that their previous relationships were any less meaningful. Critics feel the film is confused about his sexuality, but I don’t feel it’s necessary to understand it. We could have seen his affairs with men like David Minns or Joe Fanelli that he had while with Mary. We could have seen his relationship with Barbara Valentin and the men they had sex with together. Would that have clarified who he was? I’m not sure.
The film could of course have benefited from a queer director, or writer, or actors. There are ways the story could have been more nuanced and more sensitive, but as someone who gets a gross feeling in my stomach when I witness flagrant homophobia or sexism (or any -ism) in media, I don’t feel the film forced itself to make a judgement about Freddie’s identity. That feeling in my stomach is sometimes caused by a story portraying homophobia or sexism for the purposes of the plot, and sometimes when that portrayal is an (unconscious or not) reflection of the actual views of the production team. I thought the film did a pretty good job with the time constraints and limitations of the story they wanted to tell. It did sometimes feel as though it was pushing Freddie toward the people who could "save him from himself" and away from the gay scene, and the portrayal of the queer community was limited at best and somewhat sordid at worst. But I never felt the film was reflecting negatively on Freddie himself being a queer man.
What I was most afraid of was that AIDS would be glossed over, that the disease would be hinted at but never spoken of, that it would be something everyone recognizes but isn’t named. That didn’t happen, and in fact they changed the timeline so that the diagnosis was known and spoken about before it happened in real life. That was, to me, a good sign that those involved understood that Freddie’s love life was complicated and colored by many of the choices he made, including who he was with.
Which brings us to Paul Prenter. His relationship with Freddie was terribly tangled, and he deeply betrayed the band and Freddie himself. Whatever his motivations were, he was the ultimate enabler. He most definitely was a bad influence, but more in the fact he opened doors for Freddie rather than put ideas into his head. I think Freddie would have been indulging in unsafe sex and in taking drugs without Paul, but Paul certainly encouraged and enabled him.
I think a lot of critics wanted to see more of that, more of his cocaine use, more of his affairs, a real delving into of who he was and what he did. Critics are calling this film a “paint by numbers” band biopic or a “glorified Wikipedia entry.” As someone who doesn’t review films for a living, I can’t really say if this fits the mold of other band biopics (and I’m not sure if I’ve ever even seen another band biopic), and while I wanted to see a little bit more of the band dynamic and the actual recording of their songs, I thought the film was an appropriate tribute. The drug use and club visits are certainly in the film, although they aren’t explored in depth, and seemed to imply they started much later than they did in real life. But that information does exist out in the world for people to consume, in documentaries and biographies, so it’s not as though no one has ever spoken about that ever. And I’m not sure it was essential for the story this film was telling, which was made for a wider audience.
I write as though I know Freddie Mercury, when of course all I have is the interviews he gave, and the anecdotes from his closest friends and family. But those facts are extremely revealing. He changed his name and rarely spoke about his Indian Parsee childhood. He felt his music was disposable, that once it was complete and out in the world it belonged to the people and he would find something new to write. Freddie of course didn’t publicize his AIDS diagnosis until the day before he died, and he didn’t even tell the band until a few years before his death. I don’t believe he would have wanted to be remembered as an unlikely immigrant, a cautionary tale, a tragic figure that succumbed to a terrible disease. I don’t believe he would have wanted to be categorized in any way. He was a performer, arguably the greatest performer of all time. I believe he would have wanted to be remembered for his music, for his dynamism and his flair, for his ability to make a crowd feel welcome and involved. And I think this film succeeds in doing that.
The performances were excellent, especially during the Live Aid scene, which the film builds up to. Rami Malek’s Freddie feels both lonely and energetic during the right times, and his resemblance to Freddie in mannerisms is at times uncanny. I was impressed by Gwilym Lee’s thoughtful Brian May, Ben Hardy’s passionate Roger Taylor, and there was a moment when I was convinced John Deacon was on screen instead of Joe Mazzello. Lucy Boynton’s Mary Austin was at times a bit tragic (the woman who wasn’t enough), but it was a very specific role serving a very specific purpose. With what she did have she gave a lovely performance. And the ensemble cast of Allen Leech, Aiden Gillen, and Tom Hollander were perfect in their respective roles as Paul Prenter, John Reid, and Jim “Miami” Beach. Any other issues that came up were surely not because of the actors.
It’s certainly not a perfect film. The script is a bit clumsy at conveying information sometimes. It feels as though there was a checklist of trivia they had to mark off, and so there are moments that feel a little unnatural. There are definitely facts that become fluid, timelines that have changed, scenes that have been invented. It felt like a kind of fantasy, which follows the line of much of Queen’s music. Maybe it’s because I know more than the average viewer and can piece together the puzzle, but I’m ok with that. It seems like this will go down as something critics are dissatisfied with, but that people love. Which is so perfectly Queen, I couldn’t imagine anything different.