Bryan Singer, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)
Astonishingly, given the rich source material and the fact that so many people are knowledgeable (or fancy themselves to be) about the career of the British rock band Queen and the life of its lead singer Freddie Mercury, this biopic of the buck-toothed bad-boy diva with the golden angel voice manages to make him and his troupe utterly boring and one-dimensional, thanks to a script that squeezes them into a tired narrative stereotype of innocent youngsters wishing to escape humdrum lives, achieving fame and fortune early, and then falling off their pedestal through being tempted by leeches into dubious life-styles that may doom them in the end. Young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek, in a bravura performance that may come to define his career), the son of a Parsi Indian couple, works as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport during the day and frequents pubs at night to watch bands playing. He likes one band, Smile, and follows the musicians, Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), outside the venue; he offers the guys a couple of songs he’s written and they tell him they’ve just lost their lead singer / bassist. Bulsara then spontaneously bursts into song and leaves the two gobsmacked musicians to consider him as a replacement. They waste no time in doing so and promptly find a bassist, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), to complete the set-up. From here on, apart from a few stumbles and glitches on the way, the band, grandly renamed Queen, and led by Bulsara who transforms himself into Freddie Mercury, marches onto a path that includes a string of catchy hit singles and memorable albums that combine epic heavy rock with various unlikely genres of music such as music hall, tours of distant lands and a bewildering array of outlandish costumes and changes of hairstyle, all culminating in the recording of the heavy rock / opera pastiche song “Bohemian Rhapsody” which the band releases as a single against the objections of the boss of EMI Records (Mike Myers). The song and its accompanying album “A Night at the Opera” establish Queen as a major headlining rock music phenomenon across the world.
Alas and alack, fame proves to be no bed of roses or a pleasure cruise as the band comes to rely more on record label managers and employees to help manage their escalating business affairs so they can concentrate on writing, recording and touring their music. Mercury, having realised he is bisexual and breaking up with his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) of several years, drifts into the gay club subculture, egged on by his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) who also blocks Austin and other Queen members’ access to Mercury. The band is on the verge of breaking up until British pop musician Bob Geldof organises the massive Live Aid benefit concert that takes place simultaneously in London and Philadelphia in 1985. Queen manage to squeeze into a 20-minute playing slot in the London Wembley Stadium schedule and this gig, in which the band plays as much for its own survival and reason for carrying on as it does for the stadium audience and the Ethiopian famine victims, becomes the focus for reconciliation among the band members and a redemption for Mercury who finally discovers who his real “family” is: apart from his immediate family, this means his fellow Queen band members and the band’s obsessive fan base.
The film’s emphasis on “family” has as an unfortunate underside a sneering contempt for homosexual men and their subculture; and by implication, scorn for outsiders, marginal cultures and the diversity that current Western society always claims to uphold and celebrate (while crushing it and directing it to serve its aims of war and conquest in former European colonies – and ultimately against Russia and China). The Prenter character is cast into the role of villain to shoulder the blame for encouraging Mercury in indulging in endless sexual affairs and the partying and drug-taking that will eventually be his doom. The narrative’s breathless flow compresses 15 years into about two hours of screen-time which means too many liberties are taken with the timeline of events, something that will irk die-hard Queen fans. Even viewers unfamiliar with Queen’s history can see that too much is being packed into particular scenes to ring true to life. Subplots such as Mercury’s relationships with Mary, his family and the man who will eventually become his most devoted companion, the no-nonsense Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), are treated very superficially. The result is that, in spite of Malek’s intense performance in inhabiting his character, viewers are left not knowing any more about Mercury or what inspired and influenced him to become a singer – and a world-famous one at that – at the end of the film than they did at the beginning. One has to know something about the role of Parsi Indians as loyal administrators for the British empire on the Indian subcontinent and their adoption of Victorian British values and customs, such as sending children to boarding school (and unwittingly exposing them to bullying and sexual predation in a closed environment) and imbuing them with genteel British culture as well as their own, and see in this context the foundation for Mercury’s affected style and eclectic tastes in music and culture. One also has to be aware that Zoroastrianism – the religion Mercury was born into – emphasises purity of living and the begetting of children in family environments, and this means it abhors sexual practices such as anal intercourse and homosexuality generally. The religion also has a dualistic, perhaps polarised worldview in which one either sides with Good or with Evil, and there is no other alternative. The inner conflicts this must have set up for Mercury may go some way to explaining his flamboyant style of performance, in particular his emotional style of singing, his song lyrics that often deal with being alone and the accompanying anguish, restlessness and the desire for new experiences that led him into a debauched life-style and becoming infected with AIDS.
Other characters in the film are as flat as pancakes in their portrayal; even the other Queen musicians, though they have their quirks and Roger Taylor has his temper and obsession with girls and the rock’n’roll life-style, seem rather like cardboard cut-outs. For all its concern about the band’s internal dynamics that drove their creativity and how they wrote their songs, the film gives the sketchiest of details about what inspired individual members to write particular songs (mostly of the bland stadium sing-along sort, not the more interesting fantasy kind found on early Queen albums) and how they recorded them. Even the band’s history is treated in a very cursory way, to serve the narrative and its emphasis on a superficial inclusiveness: the band’s legendary in-fighting and discontent with constant touring that led three members, not just one, to pursue individual side projects and issue their own albums in the early 1980s, are acknowledged but sketched over very quickly.
The music that exists, usually in fragmented form, in the film is not enough to save it from being stereotyped and forgettable. Potential viewers are best advised to watch documentaries and live recordings online and in other digital formats to find out how Queen still continues to fascinate people and maintain its place in British cultural nostalgia. While the British themselves continue to hold Queen and Mercury in awe, and seem spellbound at how an immigrant from a former colonial backwater in Zanzibar could have navigated his way through the British cultural landscape and general Western popular culture of the mid-20th century into becoming a beloved cultural icon, at the same time they are unwilling to acknowledge their past as an empire based on stealing other people’s lands and resources, extracting wealth from them, and forcing the majority of these people into economic slavery while encouraging and privileging their minority groups in handmaiden roles.