Released in Early November, Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic about Queen and flashy frontman Freddie Mercury, broke box office records with a worldwide gross of $539,564,825, which is a culmination of $164.5 million at the domestic box office and $375 million from the foreign market. Needless to say, it was a massive hit. The sensationalism surrounding the film is not surprising, but upon watching, I found it to be a flop.
I’m a big Freddie Mercury fan. His ferocious persona and stage presence is unmatched and I was looking forward to see that translate on screen. However, I found that the movie fell into classic biopic pitfalls: superficial characters, lack of complexity, and a connect-the-dots narrative. The story never really taps into Mercury’s sexuality, which is a shame, because sexuality was such a big part of what made Queen, Queen -- queerness as an artistic force. Not to mention that you can’t discuss Freddie Mercury without talking about sexual expression, especially in a time of sexual oppression.
Other points of focus in the movie are just as perplexing. A significant portion of the plot is dedicated to Paul Prenter, the household villain, who introduces Mercury to the gay underworld of leather and sex and works to further fracture his relationships with his Queen bandmates. But there is little context as to why Prenter plays such a big role. We don’t know why Mercury is so drawn to him; all that we are given to believe is that he’s evil, calculated, and a bad influence. His role lacks purpose. Mercury’s relationship to Mary Austin, his first love, who made enough of an impact on him that he left his estate to her in his will, should have been explored, but the intricacies of their relationship are overlooked and homogenized in favor of an ambiguous, and frankly, opaque story arc.
Beyond just Mercury, the band’s artistic journey is condensed into on-the-nose statements like, “We’ll mix genres and cross boundaries!” The origin stories of their biggest hits like “Another One Bites the Dust” and “We Will Rock You” are addressed in a cursory manner, with little insight into the band’s creative process.
The film’s saving grace is Rami Malek, who has already garnered critical acclaim and Oscar buzz for his performance as Queen’s frontman. He is mesmerizing to watch on screen. The way he walks, the way he talks; he embodies Mercury’s brash spirit. Malek spent a year transforming into Mercury, whom he refers to as a “kaleidoscope human.” Every day, the actor spent four hours on movement, two hours on the piano, two hours on vocals and for the remainder of his day, he’d watch archival footage at home. He was especially attentive to Mercury’s spontaneous and unpredictable energy, telling digital magazine Page Six: “I never let the camera know where I was going. I felt everyone could play catch-up to this character’s moves.” Despite Bohemian Rhapsody’s many faults, Malek nailed the role, and that alone makes the movie worth your watch.