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Movie Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

[Editor’s note: in preparation for the upcoming Oscars in late February, we are reviewing some of the films that were nominated.]

The biopic Bohemian Rhapsody directed by Bryan Singer successfully portrays the evolution of the British rock band Queen. The film undeniably focuses on the lead singer of the band, Freddie Mercury (although the character of Mercury stated he did not want to be known as
the leader of the band, just as the singer). Performed by Rami Malek, Freddie Mercury is examined in detail throughout the film from the intimacies of his family life, sexuality, heritage, and positioning as a free spirited artist in the mainstream music industry. Simultaneously,
cultural phenomenons in London and the United States reflect the tensions and freedom of the youth, belonging to what would become the counterculture movement of the 1970s.

I often think of a good movie as staying with you for several days after seeing it. I now know much more about the history of the rock band Queen and Freddie Mercury, although, I will think more about Mercury’s originality, impact, and life experience and less about the actual film itself. Filled with quips and comic relief, the film did not feel to be serious enough in portraying a musical and cultural icon. The film lacked a certain substance and often felt as though the supporting actors were reciting their lines but falling flat emotionally. I could see Malek winning an award for his dedication to the role of Mercury, but do not consider the film to be Academy Award for Best Picture caliber.

The film’s strong point was reflecting on a specific period of time and portraying it visually through set design and costume. I could feel the shift back to a specific era. At times the costumes felt a bit forced and clichéd, but succeeded in portraying the essence of a specific era to
viewers. The scenes depicting Mercury’s parents and his family life were by far the most compelling to me. His family’s Parsi background and flee to India to protect their dedication to the faith of Zoroastrianism added another layer to my understanding of the identity of Mercury.
Proudly Parsi and also proudly displaying a photo of the Queen of England in their home, revealed the complex past of the Bulsara family. Often known post the height of his career for homosexuality, promiscuity, and contracting HIV, Mercury also had to combat xenophobia and
racism to pursue his passion for music.

Mercury was viewed as an outsider living in London. His signature moustache and oversized teeth could be viewed as quirky but added to his personality as a confident and fun-loving performance artist. Mercury’s sensitive side is revealed by his tender love of cats. Once broken up and living apart from his first love Mary, cats appear to bring joy to the confused and isolated Mercury, although he is simultaneously adored by millions worldwide at this point in his career.

The biggest negative of Bohemian Rhapsody was the occasional feeling of a rushed and traditional storyline. The passage of time did not feel natural to me, sprinting to transition from Mercury’s rise to fame recording Queen’s first album and touring America, to his gradual
decline of illness, romantic woes, and disagreements among the band members. This feeling of an inorganic passage of time led me to view Mercury as black and white rather than as the complex and dynamic human being he was. I understand that movies must operate within a
succinct time frame, but it felt rushed and therefore dispassionate. Hollywood’s plot formulas, creeping into the film and dictating how the experience of Freddie Mercury was told, felt somewhat sterile.

Is this the way Mercury would have wanted to have been portrayed? I guess there is no way to know. I feel as though he was more than his illness and sexual identity in terms of creativity, as well as substance as a person. He appeared to be portrayed as stereotypically gay, unable to restrain his lust for drugs, alcohol, and men. There must have been more to Mercury than sexual preference. What were his beliefs, values, and motivation to have such a passion for recording a distinct mix of vocals with originals riffs? We are given a little window into Mercury’s inspiration; the dramatic operatic tradition. It just felt a bit unclear why Mercury chose music as his medium for artistic expression. Possibly his excellent vocal range and innate talent. To actor Rami Malek’s credit, he did an excellent job portraying Mercury’s carefree and independent attitude towards life.

Cinematically, the film appeared to be quite good. The scene depicting the press conference when the reporters are interrogating Mercury, we get to feel what it must’ve been like for Mercury with cameras constantly flashing and reporters probing intimate questions irrelevant
to his art. Another shot I especially liked was Mercury at his manager’s office towards the end, his back against a platinum award, creating the effect of a halo around his head. The frustrations I had with the timing of the film were resolved somewhat when I realized that the beginning and end are both the 1985 Live Aid concert, Queen’s last hurrah together. Queen’s journey from small concert venues to a concert viewed by billions worldwide is remarkable. The tracklist is classic Queen. The film does not end with Mercury sick and near death, but with him doing what he truly loved – performing. It is incredible he honored his fans and had utmost respect for them, to give the performance of a lifetime despite an AIDS diagnosis.

Overall, I did not strongly dislike Bohemian Rhapsody but felt that it could have taken more risks. Malek’s commitment to Freddie Mercury’s aura was noteworthy and ultimately held the film together. I recently saw in the news that the director Bryan Singer is facing sexual abuse allegations. I wonder if this will impact the reception of the film?

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