Greeted with what I can generously call mixed reviews last fall, Bohemian Rhapsody has faced no such obstacles with the general audience. The producers can’t argue with the grosses ($200 million in American box office alone), nor can Queen argue, in depressed times for legacy acts with no new material, with fattened revenue streams. Rami Malek, who plays Freddie Mercury, will likely win Best Actor at next Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony.
My November experience was such a bore that I lacked the motivation to write a review. Instead of offering one now, I offer a series of impressions based on one of my mentors.
1. Garlanded as if he were Baal in Judah, Rami Malek does the kind of imitation of a real person whose resemblance to this persona and his commitment to the imitation convince audiences that the resemblance and commitment suffice. From Paul Muni and Meryl Streep to Christian Bale we’re suckers for this twaddle. Mimesis is not realism. A simulacrum is realism. Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, Judy Davis as Jane Bowles, hell, the cast of Todd Haynes’ uneven, bold I’m Not There, with special thanks to Heath Ledger, Charlotte Gainsborough, and Ben Whishaw played variants on live flesh — their makers gave the performers the liberty of suggestion, of creating a shimmer of a person. Award-bound product like Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, The Darkest Hour, The Theory of Everything, and countless others present themselves as worthier of acclaim than their fictional brethren because their makers work harder to recreate a known reality. These people are suspicious of art, therefore are themselves suspect.
2. Why would I watch a recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance when your six-year-old niece can find the real thing on YouTube?
3. While its defenders claim that Bohemian Rhapsody acknowledges Mercury’s bisexuality, acknowledgment is not empathy. Like I tell my film students, look to the visuals. In one gruesome montage, “Another One Bites the Dust” blasts when Mercury visits a leather bar that makes the gay bar in Otto Preminger’s 1962 Advise & Consent look like The Anvil circa 1977. The light is a lurid red, the frames tight. If uncredited director Bryan Singer used these elements and the song’s chorus intentionally, it’s a joke in execrable taste; if he didn’t, he contributes to the sense that sexual exploration is a descent into a damp-walled hell. And I thought we’d progressed enough in cinematic depictions of queer desire to eschew sequences where the closeted bisexual man exchanges a longing look with a truck driver; this was laughable in Brokeback Mountain (in which the bisexual Jack Twist’s trudge into a shadow-drenched alley for a blowjob at least comports with Annie Proulx’s depiction of a man in torment). In that early scene Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t even grant Mercury any pleasure from the encounter; the camera captures him looking queasy, as if he’d tried a 7-11 cheese dog.
4. “Freddie, you’re gay,” says Mercury’s lifelong friend and companion Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), correcting him when he tries explaining his bisexuality. “The film addressing bi erasure with a scene like the one described could have been a powerful statement,” Juan Barquin wrote last October. “Instead, it confirms this dismissal of his sexuality by never allowing Mercury to date or sleep with another woman, even though it is well-documented that he had.”
5. The fake teeth. Mercury had prominent choppers, but in Bohemian Rhapsody they’re like Quasimodo’s hump: I can’t stop staring at them. Malek isn’t all that either. Glance again at the image atop. Notice the expression of bovine complacency. Not a single photo I’ve seen of Mercury showed anything less the man’s cunning. To show otherwise would mean Freddie doesn’t fit the filmmakers’ idea of ambition: you have to want it, as the film insists, but not too much.
6. Imposing a chronological sequence reduces a complex life into the climax-and-resolution cycle of talk shows interviews and “Behind the Music.” Mercury’s Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti and Meneka Das) come off like sticks in the mud (“You’re full of the future in your head!” Papa cautions him), the better to present them as Obstacles He Had to Rise Above. Like HIV. Pedants will scold me for caring about historical accuracy — the same ones, I suspect, who will insist on it when defending the film’s depiction of bisexuality. But using Mercury’s diagnosis as the inspiration for Live Aid is grotesque.
7. For a film about musicians, Bohemian Rhapsody is uninterested in music making beyond a distracted clip here and an extra-diagetic scene there.
8. Anthony McCarten’s script is at the Crayola 64 level. “I won’t compromise my vision,” Mercury announces during a fraught version. Nor would Vladimir Putin, Dr. Doom, or Cobra Commander. “We should all take more risks,” Austin says early in the film. Yeah, well, so should we when choosing between sandwich bags at the grocer.
9. Reflecting the heavy involvement of guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, Bohemian Rhapsody does get one thing right: the fractious nature of band collaborations. Queen comprised four people, not, uh, one vision — one of the few bands in which every member wrote songs, good ones. In the film’s most engaging sequence, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) work with Mercury to get the multi-tracked vocals on the title song. A film dedicated to the conception, creation, and staging of A Night in the Opera would have been the better, more concentrated experience, and still would have coaxed out Malek’s mild charms. Hell, Singer and McCarten could also have kept Mike Myers as a prissy record executive.
10. Incidentally, using Myers as a visual nod to his role in Wayne’s World — the film, of course, that led to Queen’s Poppy Bush-era revival in America — is one of Bohemian Rhapsody‘s few moments of wit. Not Shavian wit, but I’ll take it.
11. The movie has an antiseptic brightness, like a dinner plate too scrupulously scrubbed.
12. So cloddish is Singer’s direction that when Mercury struggles with the mike stand during one of Queen’s earliest performances the audience is cued to think, “Oh, Freddie fought with the mike at Live Aid ten years later too DO YOU SEE.”
13. Like its Best Picture competitor Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody treats women as appendages, waiting by the phone for their men to share exploits or extending hands for crumbs of regret (“I wish you were here to see us!”). Written and directed by presumably liberal men, Green Book offers the feeblest of rebukes to the Trump era when it isn’t in fact reaffirming worn racial politics. Bohemian Rhapsody is its boorish counterpart.