It is a cliche, but for all his accolades, platinum-selling records, and millions of fans, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was one of the more lonely figures in rock 'n' roll. The alienated rock icon is a well-worn trope, of course -- in fact, Pink Floyd's The Wall dedicated an entire album to that effect, as did the Beatles, with Sgt. Pepper's, and countless others -- but no other rock stars had Mercury's particular background.
To begin with, his given name wasn't Freddie Mercury, or even Freddie. It was Farrokh Bulsara, reflective of his parents' Parsi heritage, migrating by force to England from Zanzibar when Mercury was young. Growing up in blue-collar Middlesex, the young Freddie was ethnic at a time that was deeply resented (often referred to erroneously by racist Brits as a "Paki"), multi-toothed (he had extra incisors), audaciously flamboyant (although he didn't come out until much later), and of peculiar, if inspired, musical sensibility to go along with his sterling, four-octave voice.
As such, he, like Bowie, was a true original, but unlike the artistically impudent Bowie, who turned androgyny into its own art form, Mercury was at first confined by convention, stymied in who he was, for some years. At one point in Bohemian Rhapsody -- "Bryan Singer's" film (more on that later)-- Mercury (Rami Malek) complains to the rest of his band of his loneliness: "You have wives and children," he says, "and I have nothing."
As portrayed by Malek, Mercury is a sweet-minded man who adores his bevy of cats, and the "love of his life" Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he married before realizing his true sexuality, but despite his showman chops and ardent fans, it took him a very long time to be comfortable in his own skin.
The film follows the band from its earliest days, before Mercury latched onto them one fateful night, and behind his pushing the envelope, recording their first couple of records and realizing a few hits along the way. It wasn't until their fourth record, the ahead-of-its-time, fearless A Night at the Opera, and its power ballad to end all power ballads, the titular "Rhapsody," with its bizarre operetta section and six minute running time (both of which highly turned off EMI executive Ray Foster -- amusingly played by Mike Myers-- who vowed the song would never be heard from again).
Of course, Foster wasn't alone in his harsh assessment. In one of the film's cheekiest moments, it recites many of the negative reviews from major music critics, including Time, The New York Times and Rolling Stone who all denigrated the song, and the album, as being a disastrous mix of styles that simply didn't work.
One of the chief pleasures of an iconic bio-pic such as this is watching the clueless early nonbelievers naysay the artists we as the audience know will become legends. The irony between what we know to be true, and what those fantastically wrong-minded dolts don't recognize gives a little zing of pleasure -- we know better! -- but that, in and of itself, is hardly enough to carry a narrative. There's a similar moment in the Johnny Cash bio-pic Walk the Line, but there the film is centered on a love-story through and through. Cash is lost, falls in love with June Carter, courts her for years, and finally confronts his demons enough to be worthy of her. It is along these lines that this film's narrative can't hold it together.
Singer, who got fired from the film weeks before the shoot ended for continued strange behavior, antagonizing actors and frequently not bothering to show up on set, left the remaining mess to be cobbled together by executive producer/stand-in director Dexter Fletcher (and editor John Ottman). The production team couldn't quite settle on an approach: Was the film about Queen and its ascendancy as a particularly unlikely rock mega band, or Mercury's personal journey of self-realization, eventually leading him to true love with a man, after he'd already contracted the AIDS virus which would eventually take his life in 1991? The film tries to have it all -- Queen's thundering stadium shows and Mercury's personal story-- but can't effectively switch from the macro to the micro without gumming up its own narrative flow.
We move from anthemic rock shows and album recordings to Mercury alone in his mansion like Charles Foster Kane, hopelessly turning his living room lamp on and off in an attempt to communicate with Mary, now his neighbor, for someone -- anyone -- to be there for him when he feels most alone. What we don't get is more than a veiled suggestion of Mercury's true sexual life, or his continued use of heavy drugs as things got more and more splintered for him. This is, essentially, a safe PG-13 rendition of what should, by any honest measure, be a hard R film.
If there's any question where its true motivations lie, it's in the end, with the band reuniting to play a defining set during Live Aid, in front of roughly 1.5 billion people worldwide. Bizarrely, the film plays out almost the entire set as a kind of filler, while also trying to cram in enough emotional resonance to fulfill an audience's expectation for sweet-laced closure.
Forcing too many elements in a short space, the film jams in meaningful camera shots of Mary and her husband, standing alongside Mercury's new, serious boyfriend, Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), all staring in wonder as Mercury tears up the set, bringing the massive audience to a collective rush. The film clearly wants to capture what made Mercury so riveting to watch live but is more than content to keep to a surface reading of him in order to do so.
79 Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers
Director: Bryan Singer
Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language
Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Despite its obviously over-modulated nature, there are still some good things at work, beginning with Malek's performance, which is exemplary. Even sporting fake teeth and a series of unfortunate rock wigs, he presents not just Mercury's vulnerability, but his series of compensations for it. The rest of his bandmates are also strong, with Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) all well-repped, producing a group chemistry vastly better than most such arrangements (for the genre's nadir in this regard, try re-watching Oliver Stone's The Doors, beyond Val Kilmer's performance and see where that lands you). This is the version of the film that the rest of the band mostly approved of, and we can see why, with its whitewashing of Mercury's demons, and the other members' represented likability. Unfortunately, in playing it so safe, the filmmakers truly missed an opportunity for something far more resonant than a simple paean to a classic rock god.
The shame of it is that Mercury remains an absolutely fascinating man, with as unique an origin story as any in rock history. It would take a vastly more honest and subtle approach, but his is a life absolutely worthy of such investigation. It's just unfortunate the filmmakers decided to forego a softer, more reflective ballad in favor of such big-stadium pomposity.
MovieStyle on 11/02/2018
Print Headline: Another one bites the dust