Bismillah, Freddie will not let us go
Formulaic biopic depicts Mercury as smaller than life
Freddie Mercury, played with an earnest commitment bordering on fetishism by Rami Malek in the biographical film Bohemian Rhapsody, is a rock star the likes of which we hadn't seen before the 1970s and haven't since: An Asian frontman of a British rock outfit, a four-octave opera lover who sang in leotards and thongs, a proud organiser of orgiastic jamborees, and a gay man who endeared himself to the hard-rock audience that, in all likelihood in those pre-diversity days, either failed to realise that their mustachioed rock-god was out-and-out queer or suppressed their suspicion so completely that they didn't feel any cognitive dissonance in their devotion to Queen. Even the name Freddie gave the band laid it all bare.
In other words, what a character. And that's why watching Bryan Singer's Bohemian Rhapsody is frustrating. Freddie was outrageous, but his long-waited biopic is insipid. Queen was inventive, risk-taking and rock-solid in their musicianship; the film, which was executive-produced by surviving band members Brian May and Roger Taylor, is conventional to a fault, a tiptoeing act so devoid of edges that sometimes it feels like an affront. A small consolation is Malek's impersonation of Freddie -- a passionate impersonation of a man of a tiger. It's a mime, the way Hollywood likes it (so Malek will be up in the front row at the Oscars), but nonetheless an entertaining mime that prods us to imagine what the real Freddie was like offstage -- his mannered speech, his queenly arrogance, his private vulnerability. Malek brings back the ghost of Freddie, but perhaps not the blazing trail of fire and brimstone he once inspired.
Bohemian Rhapsody (we didn't even get to hear that song in its entirely) begins and ends with Queen's 1985 performance at Live Aid in London, with a fake Bob Geldof panicking behind the stage. Malek basically studied the video of that legendary concert and recreated Freddy's every movement, down to hip-thrust and leg-split. While it's an impressive 20min re-enactment with a CG-enhanced stadium crowd and swooping camerawork, with Malek prancing and pumping his fist, we wonder what the point exactly is when you can watch the real Queen and the real Freddie thrashing it out in this particular gig on YouTube, in full and with quality sound. It has 58 million views so far and the number will climb this week now that the film has opened in cinemas.
The main narrative follows the tired trajectory of an underdog Parsi migrant in London who joins a nerdy college band in 1970, propels them up the global chart, is struck down by loneliness and the old cliché of sex, drugs and rock n' roll, and finally comes down with HIV/Aids at the moment the disease is ravaging the gay community.
If you're a Queen fan, I guess this bare necessity of Queen 101 is agreeable enough, with a sprinkle of songwriting lore, anecdotes, in-jokes and recording legends, with Gwilym Lee playing Brian May as a straight-faced geek, Ben Hardy as the baby-faced Roger Taylor and Joseph Mazzello as John Deacon, all sidekicks to Malek's prancing.
That may have been the case when Queen performed live, but here the three band members are so vacant and artificial that it ruins the spirit of what Queen really was.
Freddie's estrangement from his Parsi/Zoroastrian parents, his interest in musical genre-jumping, his marriage to Mary (Lucy Boynton) before he got a big break -- all of this would have been solid material in the biography of an exceptional life. This is a man who reinvented himself completely and performed a stunning act of rebellion in front of the people who thought they were so rebellious -- here's a gay man from India who became the hero of a white rock band, a homosexual who embraced ("Don't stop me now!" he proudly sang, bare-chested on the piano) the joy and agony of a bacchanalian lifestyle.
But the film only plays like a summary of Freddie's life, a bullet-point presentation of key moments, without angles or attitude, without ambition or even style.
That leaves us with Rami Malek. At first glance, he doesn't look like Mr Fahrenheit, not someone who can make a supersonic man (or woman) out of you. But his devotion to the role grows on you. A tortured genius whose theatrics are second nature, and whose showmanship a modus operandi on and off the stage, Freddie Mercury risks becoming his own caricature, and yet Malek here makes him real. Too bad he's not in a better film than this.