Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech and Mike Myers
It’s in the title. There’s a reason Bohemian Rhapsody is not called “Queen” or “Mercury” or “I want to break free”. It is neither harmoniously collective nor ragingly individualistic. It is, in every sense, rhapsodic. Effusive. Exuberant. Reckless. Much like the band’s operatic progressive-rock-pop-symphonic single, the film, too, is all feeling: an imbalanced, shameless, madly impulsive explosion of expression that strives to locate identity in its chaos. Until, like the band itself, it concludes that chaos is its identity.
Like the song, Bohemian Rhapsody abandons conventional technique – this is not so much a historically inaccurate biopic as it is a celebration of art through its artist – and becomes an eccentric composition of the lead singer’s diverse voices. His voice as a closeted Parsee immigrant in working-class London, as an outcast singing to an army of outsiders, a queer lover of people over bodies, a royally charismatic breaker of musical rules, a terminally ill harbinger of extremes, and most of all, a showman in love with the stage.
We see all of it and none of it, with the makers choosing to portray man as a manifestation of music rather than dissect the man behind his music. As a result, they design Bohemian Rhapsody as more of an experience than a movie. This is evident from the Karaoke-style lyrics that flash on the screen as we witness the origins of Queen’s greatest hits – a visual gimmick that mirrors the band’s obsession with creating ‘interactive’ songs. It encourages us to thump and sing along – that is: repeat a popular story, but this time communally, in unison with the makers. In effect, it tells us nothing new but heightens the feeling of what we already know. Some may call this “whitewashing,” and others, “internalizing”.
At the center of the cauldron is the unlikely Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as the king of Queen. The dead-eyed Egyptian-American actor goes all in, committedly and phenomenally, to elevate a role of limited narrative depth into a hypnotic portrait of musical tragedy. In his hands, the man has to merely be heard for his story to be told. In his eyes, we see a profound understanding of a language that most of us have grown up on – in stadiums and clubs, parties and platforms – without even knowing it. Malek’s inflections in tone, gait and swagger express a visceral between-the-lines fragility that cannot be written or structured. For instance, as young Farrokh Bulsara, he comes across as an outsider who misinterprets his own alternate sexuality as an effeminate consequence of his “buck-toothed” appearance. He convinces himself that his audacious fashion sense and theatrical grasp of linguistics – every second line is delivered with an unmistakable sense of poetry – are a direct result of his ‘dental’ freakishness. The people around him, too, seem to have normalized his left-of-field personality as a physical quirk, given that they occupy an era that has seen the rise of unorthodox legends like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Stevie Wonder. When he sashays into a studio, late as usual, his “I’m a performer, darling, not a Swiss train timetable” is more of a diva-like apology than an indictment of his differentness.
The film therefore refuses to explore his sexuality on a personal level, instead allowing Malek to communicate these traits through the perspectives of those he worked with. He falls for his fiancé, Mary (Lucy Boynton), whose fondness of her Freddie, even after she exposes to him the truth about himself, forms the platonic heartbeat of his scattered story. She becomes the mirror that reflects Bulsara, and then the mercurially hedonistic rockstar, as a melancholic boy who struggled to relocate the definition of “love” to a zone between spirituality and physicality. In one exquisite scene, as he watches the light cascade off her face in a mirror, despite his inherent queerness, he can’t help but purr to nobody in particular: “Oh, you are so beautiful”. The moment is striking for how utterly genuine he looks. For he here becomes a gay man, frustrated with his sexual identity not because of sociocultural rejection…but because his soulmate, the love of his life, might have always been a woman.
A few key landmarks – the timing of Freddie’s fatal diagnosis, the fictitious breakup of the band, the reimagining of Jim Hutton as a butler instead of a hairdresser – have been generously tinkered with to dramatize the stakes of Bohemian Rhapsody.
Which is perhaps why even the film doesn’t afford much time to his ‘80s courtship with final partner Jim Hutton. It runs till 1985, till the electrifying Live Aid Concert set where, as Freddie Mercury serenades 72,000 raging fans, one can almost sense Mary passing on the baton to Jim. One can also sense Farrokh Bulsara – the defiant Parsee son who stopped pretending to be someone he was not – making peace with the prospect of his heart being caught between the soul (of a woman) and the body (of a man).
I wasn’t surprised to hear a few blasphemous gasps from diehard Queen fans in the theater. A few key landmarks – the timing of Freddie’s fatal diagnosis, the fictitious breakup of the band, the reimagining of Jim Hutton as a butler instead of a hairdresser – have been generously tinkered with to dramatize the stakes of Bohemian Rhapsody. A biographical film, however, is essentially the combination of cherry-picked events that best represent the ‘truth’ of a subject’s life. Choosing these events by subtracting the others is already, by extension, the embodiment of filmmaking’s definition as “artful lying”. This truth, then, needn’t be literal; at times, it is simply an aura, an intangible image, or a flicker of genius.
It can be found, for example, in a moment where Freddie, sitting by a window, is trying to compose a new song. We sense that he can hear the disparate piano ballads and nihilistic words of Bohemian Rhapsody take flight in his head. His eyes almost spill over; he is overwhelmed by what he hears. “That’s really good,” he whispers, lost in music that is yet to be made. Later on stage, as we see this same look in his eyes, we wonder if perhaps Freddie Mercury, the man who died of Aids-related pneumonia, has just realized the irresistible irony of his greatest performance occurring at a concert featuring the words “Live” and “Aid”. This is perhaps a wishful lie. But it is also damned good cinema. Cinema that counts on Farrokh Bulsara sashaying onto our screens and declaring: I’m a performer, darling, not a faithful biopic.