While Rami Malek shines as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody plays it so safe and is so sexually sanitised it fails to truly rock us. By Christos Tsiolkas.
There is one very good reason to see Bohemian Rhapsody and that is for Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of rock band Queen. Mercury’s stage persona was an amalgam of glam flamboyance, cock-rock posturing and sly sexual teasing; and later, he added elements of the gay macho clone aesthetic to this persona. The danger for any actor taking this role is to succumb to mere mimicry, but Malek has made some very intelligent choices as an actor here, incorporating elements of camp artificiality in his performance, particularly when we see Mercury on stage. He also imbues the role with an aching vulnerability, a deep sense of Mercury’s loneliness.
In Malek’s sympathetic immersion in the role we come to understand how rock music offered Mercury a means of escaping his dual sense of being an outsider; as a closeted gay youth, and also as the child of an immigrant Parsee family, a wog, in ’60s and ’70s Britain. We perceive Mercury’s warmth and shyness, but also see the roots of his diffidence and sometimes querulous and antagonistic behaviour. They arise from the push-pull of desiring so much to be accepted but also from his constantly being on the lookout for signs of disapproval and contempt. It is only when he is on stage, when he is working to claim the love of an audience, that he finds release. He struts, he flirts, he commands. He wins our love.
All our understanding of this complicated man comes from Malek’s acumen and passionate involvement in the role. The script, by Anthony McCarten, is schematic and uninspired. The fault is not only his, of course. Bryan Singer, who directed, keeps reining in the performers, staying faithful to the stolidness of the writing. There’s no flamboyance or risk-taking when it comes to directing.
Part of the reason for the film’s slipshod style might arise from the dominating involvement of two members of Queen, Brian May and Roger Taylor, as producers. The project was initially to star Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury, and to be scripted by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Damned United). Singer came on late as a director and the film’s production was notoriously fraught, with Singer fired two weeks before principal photography was completed. He was replaced by Dexter Fletcher, director of the upcoming Elton John biopic, Rocketman, but Singer still receives the direction credit for the film.
From all accounts, May and Taylor wanted to make a film that was reverential to the band’s fanbase, one that was also circumspect about Mercury’s life. They should have been paying more attention to how their music was represented on film. There is a telling moment when Mercury wants to encourage the band to incorporate disco and synthesisers into their music. The band’s reluctance is understandable. Queen’s raison d’être, after all, is arms-pumping stadium rock. But Mercury’s insistence was absolutely right. It led to bass guitarist John Deacon taking a more prominent role in the musicianship of the band, and whatever you think of Queen, the post-disco crunch of “Another One Bites the Dust”, “I Want to Break Free” and even the lyrically mad “Radio Ga Ga” must be counted among their most definitive works.
Though I love the work Malek does in this film, it is tantalising to think of what Baron Cohen would have brought to a portrayal of Mercury. Sleaziness – unapologetic and aggressively in-your-face – is an indelible part of his actor’s persona. It isn’t there at all in Malek’s performance. Save for the tenderness in the love scenes with Mary, his partner, played by Lucy Boynton, the offstage Mercury is surprisingly sexually timid. I have no doubt Malek is capable of expressing a potent sexual energy and his failure to do so in this role must be due to choices made by the filmmakers.
There is a snake in the garden of Queen’s success, and that is Paul Prenter, Mercury’s personal assistant, who was ultimately to betray the singer by revealing his homosexuality, promiscuity and HIV-positive diagnosis to British media. Prenter was Mercury’s lover for years, a fact that is subtly elided in the film. What we see instead is Prenter’s role in introducing Mercury to the highly sexualised German gay club scene. Those scenes are filmed in darkness, ominous electronic music bangs in our ears, and the implication is clear that it is this abandonment to sex and drugs that led to Mercury’s contracting of AIDS. What we never see or are made to comprehend is the liberation Mercury might have experienced in this world.
Prenter, played by the charismatic and handsome Allen Leech, may well have been a duplicitous snake, but as soon as he smiles confidently at Mercury, you understand exactly why the singer would want to fuck him. Prenter was a Belfast lad and a more curious film might have explored the possible communion he and Mercury found as cultural outsiders in what is a highly WASP London. I was hungry for a sex scene between them. Instead, the film assiduously and monotonously affirms family as that which Mercury lacks. It is only when he realises the members of Queen are his true family that redemption is possible.
It might be thought I am arguing that such a demonisation of sexual subcultures reflects a homophobic anxiety in the representation of Mercury’s sexuality. I think the film’s unsophisticated linkage of AIDS and sexual abandonment is of concern. But something more confusing and more indicative of our contemporary age is going on – the filmmakers are not only condemning homosexual promiscuity but all forms of uninhibited sexuality. Mercury’s loneliness is, in the end, partly redeemed by giving him a salt-of-the-earth partner, Jim Hutton, who has nothing to do with the music world and who represents suburban respectability. Like the other members of Queen, Mercury finally gets to have his loyal and understanding spouse.
It is in the film’s favour that every cast member is committed and working hard to be convincing in their roles. That is true for Boynton, for Leech, for all the actors playing the members of Queen, for Aidan Gillen who plays their manager, and especially for Aaron McCusker who in a few short scenes ably sketches Hutton’s integrity and good humour. If Prenter is the serpent, I am happy to believe that in real life Hutton was a saviour. Yet, when we return to the dynamism and power of Mercury before an audience, when we see him work the crowd – make love to them – we know something has been deliberately omitted from this film.
I saw Bohemian Rhapsody not long after seeing the new version of A Star Is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Directed by Cooper, A Star Is Born is a much better film. He’s clearly learnt much from working with David O. Russell, and on the evidence of this directorial debut, has something of that director’s almost preternatural instinct for storytelling. Lady Gaga is inexperienced as an actor but Cooper’s handling of her performance is generous and protective, and he makes her emotional nakedness integral to the narrative. This formidable vocalist has deservedly garnered a tremendous amount of audience goodwill. I saw the film with a full house, and it was exciting to experience our communal desire for her to succeed. But as with Bohemian Rhapsody, there is a sexual conservatism to the film that made me resist its charm. A Star Is Born’s story is inherently masochistic, with all previous versions being compromised by the idea that the woman’s artistic career will always play second fiddle to her man’s. I was hoping for a transformative reworking of the plot, one that finally gave the female performer an equal stake in her artistic drives. But this new version asks us to believe that the female performer is not prey to the self-doubt, the delusions, the temptations and the sheer selfish grit of being a success.
As in all previous versions, it is Cooper, as country-rock singer Jackson Maine, who succumbs to alcoholism and drug addiction. That this might be a possibility for Lady Gaga’s Ally is never seriously a consideration. There is a chasteness to A Star Is Born, a deliberate turning away from the sybaritic pleasures that have so long been associated with fame. It’s a reworking that is ostensibly in alignment with #MeToo and contemporary sexual politics. But the confluence of feminism and an almost puritan suspicion of pleasure makes for a strange fusion of the traditional and the radical. Good girls don’t do sex?
And as Bohemian Rhapsody suggests, if boys want to be good, they shouldn’t do sex either. Not sex that involves risk and danger, extremes and intoxication. The camp significance of Mercury’s life and music, the iconic status that all versions of A Star Is Born have for metropolitan gay cultures, must have been understood by the respective filmmakers. A Star Is Born acknowledges that history by having Jackson discover Ally in a drag bar where she belts out a version of “La Vie en Rose”. But it is merely a nod to camp; it keeps its distance from it.
Camp is a sensibility that is notoriously hard to pin down, and even the most famous attempt, Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’ ”, was quickly undermined by the shifting boundaries of what the term designated. Certainly, it is irony, detachment and, yes, as Sontag wrote, often a preference for “bad art” over “good”. But camp is also a defiant and cheeky acknowledgement that the outsider can have a more nuanced perspective on the evasions and repressions of mainstream culture. It’s this aspect of camp both films ignore.
A Star Is Born is a much more proficient film than Bohemian Rhapsody but in its desire to play it so damn safe, it is never stirring. Bohemian Rhapsody is a mess but, in its near re-creation of Queen’s performance at the London Live Aid concert, Malek takes to the stage and is thrilling. He’s channelling Mercury but he’s also releasing himself, doing what great stage performers do that makes us adore them – persuading us of their mastery but keeping us on edge that they will transcend themselves, that what we are experiencing cannot be re-created.
Malek’s performance reveals the lie at the heart of both these films – the notion that such abandonment can be domesticated and made safe. In those moments, I knew exactly what Mercury discovered in the backrooms of the sex clubs in Munich, the intoxication of that liberation. And I was reminded of what is also integral to the camp aesthetic, that notion of épater la bourgeoisie, the defiant sneer of the outsider. The filmmakers keep trying to tame Freddie Mercury but, thankfully, because of Malek’s performance, they can’t quite kill the beast.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 3, 2018 as "Rhapsody miscue".
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