Note: The political nature of this review (and the fact that it’s about a biopic) required I break some of my normal no-spoilers rule (there are spoilers).
Directed by: Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher Written by: Anthony McCarten
Bohemian Rhapsody seems to be one of those works that’s loved by audiences and loathed by critics. In its early moment you can see why. We are introduced to Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek) Indian-Parsi parents (Meneka Das and Ace Bhatti). They address him by his given name, Farrokh, which he promptly rejects. From here on Mercury’s parents are given sparse screen time, and whenever they are on the screen, they speak expositorily. It makes it appear as if the storytellers felt obliged to note the role of race and culture in Mercury’s life, without having to think about (or devote the screen time to examining) the more subtle ways such issues come up in real life.
These writing problems struck me right away, giving me the impression I would not enjoy Bohemian Rhapsody. I was wrong. While Mercury’s larger than life persona may lend to the film’s non-realism in the opening scene, it quickly becomes one of the film’s strengths. Mercury and bandmates Brian May (Gwilym Lee), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and particularly Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), quickly endear as a crew, in part due to their particularities (Taylor’s defence of his composition “I’m In Love With My Car” for instance), and in part do to their utter solidarity. While Bohemian Rhapsody goes on to be a film about much more, its title is truly well chosen. Its best scenes feature the bandmates putting the track together.
My issues with its screenplay aside, Bohemian Rhapsody gave me new hope about the potential of biopics. I’d come to the conclusion that such films are generally disappointments waiting to happen. Real people, even real people who make good art don’t necessarily have biographies that are themselves art-worthy. Bohemian Rhapsody’s creators were perhaps aware of this dilemma. They know there are fans out there that want to like a movie that celebrates (and reproduces great music) and felt they had one that was rife enough with drama to work. Therefore, the work they produced was the tale of an artist embellished with issues of racialized and bisexual identity.
I say embellished, because many felt Mercury’s sexuality (or at least a nuanced, accurate presentation of it) was not nearly as central to the film as it could have been. Mercury is not simply a martyred rock and roller, but an LGBT icon. The films perceived representation problems are numerous, but they include erasing Mercury’s bisexuality (presenting him as gay instead), not giving him romantic scenes with men, casting a clichéd “gay villain,” etc.
A thought I often find myself coming back to is that criticisms of representation in film can vary in their weight depending on who you assume a film’s audience is. When I left the theatre I was thoroughly surprised at the notion that it was seen as “bi-erasing,” since Mercury explicitly says he’s bisexual. While his partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) tells him otherwise, unless audiences take her word as authoritative, there’s no reason to think the film itself is denying Mercury’s bisexuality. Then again, I knew about Mercury’s bisexuality going into the movie, and acknowledge it’s quite possible a less informed viewer would have perceived this scene differently.
Similarly, I found the suggestion that the film features a gay villain to be misplaced. The character who gets the label is soft-spoken and speaks of his own vulnerabilities. While his final moment in the film is far from flattering, he generally struck me as someone who genuinely cared for Mercury and wasn’t simply manipulative.
Finally, the film’s focus on Mary Austin over Mercury’s eventual partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) has been criticized as straight-washing. While I cannot deny that it serves that effect, the way the Austin relationship is depicted makes for an excellent dramatic touch. Mercury’s falls out with Austin while still feeling something akin to passionate love for her, thus making the challenges of monogamy and romantic love a central and compelling theme in the film. The plot also provides bittersweet context for one of Mercury’s lesser known, singer-songwriter-esque compositions.
What is undeniably painful about the film’s handling of LGBT issues, however, is also what is undeniably painful about its handling of race issues. Whenever the film wanted to have a message it dropped subtlety altogether and had other characters, including Mary Austin and Jim Hutton, essentially preach to Mercury: a dynamic resembling moralistic children’s TV shows. At best this is sloppy writing. At worst, it infantilizes Mercury compared to his (often) straight peers, minimizing the degree to which his struggles were the product of his living in a homo/biphobic society.
Last summer I responded to a representation-based critique of Detroit. In that case I felt the film had an unequivocally anti-racist, police-critical message, and found what its critics were saying essentially amounted to a call for a less intelligently constructed movie (in order to spoon feed viewers its political message). With Bohemian Rhapsody my feelings are slightly different. As with Detroit, I’m sceptical of the critique that says the film contributes to the stereotyping of gay and bisexual people. On the other hand, Bohemian Rhapsody is not an artfully nor politically astute script in the way that Detroit’s is. Therefore, even if Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t as problematic as some make it out to be, this is at least a case where its having better LGBT (and racial) politics would also have made it a better movie.
One of the key themes of Bohemian Rhapsody was that Queen itself felt like a family. This is a reason that I think many, especially those of us who identify deeply with the culture of rock-and-roll, were able to see it as an inspirational film: it shows musicians we care for caring for each other. Of course, Mercury’s cultural meaning is far deeper to LGBT rock fans and those affected by HIV, than it will be for most in the general rock-fan population. This means that the representation-critiques matter, and should be heard out by screenwriters.
Watching “Mercury” sing “We Are the Champions” is a powerful moment when it follows one being guided through the “kicks in the face” of his life story. Suddenly, it’s no longer a sports novelty-song but a shared statement of defiance from one of rock’s great rebels. Whatever one thinks of the movie itself, at very least, it provides an exhilarating reminder of Freddy’s anthemic music.