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30 Minutes On: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

I saw the Freddie Mercury biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" back in November and liked it better than expected, but have put off writing about it. The further away from it I get, the more I realize it's because each passing day made me more aware of its failings, and I was trying to hold onto the rush that followed my initial viewing. Give the movie this much: it understands that a dazzling finale can send you out into the world with a spring in your step, momentarily unable to recall all the details of the rest. The prolonged re-creation of Queen and Freddie reuniting for Live-Aid is so strong, in fact, that it might make you wonder what a whole film built just around that set might've looked and felt like. 

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Of course, a documentary about that day would've been more exciting still, and it might have spared us the reactionary framework that ultimately makes this lavish musical biopic feel strangely neutered, given the subject matter. It’s a PG-13 movie about a bisexual rockstar in the 70s and 80s—though the film insists he was gay, full stop, and that's troublesome for reasons we''ll get to momentarily—and obviously there are limitations inherent in that. 

It's not quite a paint-by-numbers biopic—it's has too much fun with the recording and performance scenes to deserve that label—but it's not particularly imaginative, and the fact that it's PG-13 is only part of the problem. You could make a case that a PG-13 film about a rock star who died of complications from AIDS, and that doesn't tap-dance around that part of the story, and that's going to be seen on airplanes and probably end up on a commercial cable channel and be watched on Thanksgiving day by extended families because it's something everyone can agree on, constitutes a certain kind of subversive cultural progress. It’s appealing, and I consider it a net artistic gain for commercial cinema that both this project and the 2018 remake of "A Star is Born" both became big hits. They're both about real (or real-ish) people moving through a recognizable world and dealing with adult problems, and although they're both based on existing intellectual property (respectively, the story and music of Queen, and prior versions of "A Star is Born"), they don't feel like shiny, shrink-wrapped product in quite the same way that even the best Marvel, DC, Star Wars and James Bond films tend to. 

No, what ultimately turned me against the movie is the sense that it's an extended bit of record-correction by Mercury's bandmates. It goes out of its way to let us know who came up with which part of which song, as if concerned that fans might undervalue the rest of the band. It makes Freddie seem like a villain who takes the others for granted when he decides to go make a solo album on the advice of manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), when, as IndieWire's Zach Scharf pointed out, he wasn't even the first member of Queen to record a solo record. It seems to insist upon a particular reading of his sexuality ("Freddie, you're gay," Lucy Boynton's Mary Austin tells him after he declares himself bisexual, as the real Freddie did) yet it moves Mercury's AIDS diagnosis from 1987 to 1985, and makes it seem as if it motivated him to get back together with his old band at Live-Aid even though they'd never even split up; and it treats same-sex attraction as something not merely physically dangerous (an attitude that might've been understandable, though regrettable, if the film had been released in the '90s instead of this year) but sinister and destructive (a montage of Freddie cruising is scored to "Another One Bites the Dust"). This is all the more embarrassing considering that the film is co-directed by an openly gay filmmaker (Bryan Singer, who was fired from the production when longstanding accusations of sexual predation finally entered the mainstream media) and arrived in theaters less than two years after "Moonlight," a tiny independent film about a Black gay man finding himself, won Best Picture at the Oscars and went on to gross $65 million worldwide. 

Some of the scenes are merely puzzling (Mike Myers plays a nonexistent record executive named Ray Foster who exists only to tell the band that "Bohemian Rhapsody" is too arty to be a hit) and others are just plain silly (during a party at Freddie's house, he offers his bandmates cocaine, but they protest that they have to get home early because they have wives and kids). 

This is all a shame, because "Mr. Robot" star Rami Malek’s lead performance is strong enough to support a film that was either much more faithful to the record or much wilder and therefore not beholden to it (I'd put "I'm Not There," "The Doors," and Ken Russell's classical biopics in that category). Physically, Malek is not a close match for Mercury, though in terms of heritage  he's at least in the ballpark (he's Egyptian-American and grew up speaking Persian; Mercury's family were Persians from India) and he captures Mercury's spirit, that animating spark of impish anarchy and showbiz polish that made his voice and his stage presence so electrifying. He’s not conventionally pretty, he’s beautiful, in a silent film star sort of way, like Buster Keaton or William S. Hart. Malek understands that a huge part of successful film acting is surrendering to the vibe of the project and allowing yourself to be used as a sculptural object—a piece of clay to be molded by the camera, the lighting, the costumes, the editing. 

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But that's not to say that he's passive—far from it. This is a lead performance with an idea behind it. As on "Mr. Robot," you can sense the intelligence animating every decision. Malek plays Mercury as a human being but also self-made mythological figure, somebody who was aware of the effect he had on others before strangers knew his name, and who was busy fashioning a persona before he had a band to put it in front of. He’s got a little bit of what Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and yes, Freddie Mercury had back in their heyday—and Prince—a kind of extroverted yet introverted pansexual dynamism, strange mix of arrogance and tenderness. When I remember the movie fondly, I remember him—or a smartly framed image of him, or a line that he delivered with just the right mix of dreaminess and bite. Pity the movie isn't as exceptional as he is. 

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