‘Bohemian Rhapsody’: Bland Biopic with Great Performances

One of the best parts of the “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a curiously bland biopic about one of rock’s most influential bands and its flamboyant frontman is that it allows Asians to reclaim their role in musical history. Freddie Mercury (played with doe-eyed exuberance by Rami Malek) begins as Farrokh Bulsara. His traditional Indian British Parsi family is shown in flashback.

The movie actually begins where it ends, with Queen’s historic Live Aid performance. That’s a teaser for the best part of the movie: a recreation of that performance at Wembley Stadium. Freddie is about to strut out on to the stage, confident and cocky.

Then we flashback to 1970, when Freddie is still legally Farrokh, living with his parents (Ace Bhatti as his father Bomi and Meneka Das as his mother Jer) and sister (Priya Blackburn)  while working as a baggage mis-handler at Heathrow Airport. Lovely to think if you traveled in 1970 that one of your bags might have been tossed about by a famous rocker.

Anthony McCarten’s (“The Theory of Everything” and “Darkest Hour”) scripting falls back on the meet-cute instead of historic fact. Farrokh/Freddie attends a performance of his favorite local bands, Smile, and, in passing, catches the eye of Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), before finding Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Brian and Roger have just learned that their lead singer and bassist, Tim Staffel (Jack Roth), is quitting to join another higher profile group Humpy Bong. Farrokh/Freddie, whose original intent was to interest Smile in some lyrics, ends up impressing Brian and Roger enough to become lead singer, but, since he can’t play bass, they’ll need to recruit a bass player. How’s that for neatly tied exposition?

The band soon becomes Queen and Mary Austin and now legally Freddie Mercury become an item. Selling their van, Queen puts down money for a recording session which attracts EMI Records. Through EMI, Queen gets national and international tours. During the US tour, after calling Mary from a pay phone, Freddie finds himself attracted to a trucker who gives him a lascivious look before heading into the men’s room at a truck stop. Freddie isn’t faithful, but and lure isn’t female groupies.

The movie isn’t skipping over Mercury’s attraction to men, but it does skip other things. The actual 1974 US tour ended prematurely due to May falling ill (hepatitis), but the script skips over this.

After the tour, the band take some time off at an isolated farm to create what will become the 1975 “A Night at the Opera,” that includes the six-minute “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The fictional EMI exec Ray Foster (Mike Myers) refuses to release “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single and the band walks. Foster declares, “Mark these words: No one will play Queen.”

Jim Beach replies, “Fortune favors the bold.”

Mercury, through Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett (Dickie Beau), gets the over-long song on the air and despite negative reviews, the song is a hit.

The name Kenny Everett might mean more to the British audience than to an American one. Everett (1944-1995) was a well-known radio DJ who became close friends with Freddie Mercury and were part of the London party scene in the 1970s.  Everett, like Mercury, died of complications associated with AIDS.

In the movie, Queen becomes more famous and success goes to Mercury’s head and Paul Prenter (Allen Leech, who played decent guy Tom Branson “Downtown Abbey”) finds this the perfect time to become something more in Mercury’s life, with the exit of Mary who breaks her engagement with Mercury when he admits that he’s bisexual (she feels he’s gay). Paul engineers the exit of John Reid (Aidan Gillen) and insinuates himself into Mercury’s personal life and encourages a change in lifestyle.

The other boys in the band, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, were all settled down, if not married. Mercury’s single hedonistic lifestyle alienates them from Mercury. Yet during this party, Mercury finds himself attracted to a waiter, Jim Hutton, who tells him to get in contact with him when Mercury learns to love himself.

The media gets wind of Mercury’s wild partying and during a promotional press conference for the 1982 “Hot Space,” the press are more interested in learning more about Mercury’s personal life than talking about the music or even getting quotes for the rest of the band. Soon after, Mercury, with ego nastily grown too big, departs to make two solo albums. Yet this script device is misleading. Other band members made solo albums. Taylor released his first solo album in 1981, but his first single in 1977. Brian May jammed with Eddie Van Halen in 1983. John Deacon played with other bands and worked with Elton John. Live Aid was in 1985 (13 July).

The movie has the band separated the year before Live Aid although Queen was on The Works tour, but McCarten’s script hopes to amp up the drama in a last-minute reunion and tuning-up-for-the-show gambit and for good measure includes a heavy dose of disease and poignant knowledge. Freddie learns he has HIV just before the big concert and tells the band. That certainly adds emotional impact that the director and editor underline heavily with close-ups during the recreation of the Live Aid performance.

McCarten’s script establishes a creative vacuum. Queen creates with Queen. Due to the meet-cute scenario, we don’t learn that Tim Staffell actually knew Farrokh/Freddie from Ealing Art College. We also don’t see how David Bowie got involved with the 1981 “Under Pressure” and how two peacocks, Bowie and Mercury, interacted.

The British Isles are a small world with limited studio space and high profile party spots. The rock royalty of the era must surely have bumped into each other and Queen and its members did more than just bump into other musicians. And even for family, they fight too nice. One suspects this is a sanitized version that pleased the living.

The movie also doesn’t take us into this world and with the reported “unexpected unavailability” of director Bryan Singer, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel filling in before Dexter Fletcher stepped in, its hard to know who to credit or blame for decisions like the overlong neon graphics to illustrate the splashy international touring or the neatly niceness of the jilted band members.

Jim Beach is one of the producers and Brian May and Roger Taylor were the music producers and creative consultants. Knowing of the academic career of May and the science background of Taylor and the electrical skills of John Deacon, one wishes more witty lines were given to them.

Having someone who could pass for Parsi cast as Mercury is worth noting. Los Angeles-born Rami Malek comes from a Coptic Egyptian immigrant family and Egypt counts as both Asian and African. The Parsi fled Persia (Iran) for India and that’s explained in the movie as is why the family fled Zanzibar (now Tanzania). There is a lovely moment when Mercury finally repeats and accepts the religious ethic his father lives by: Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” Too bad the script ruins that moment by tacking on Mercury’s reconnection with Jim Hutton (who would become his last life partner) and Hutton’s introduction to Mercury’s family.

While that hint of Asian identity is clear, little is indicated about how those years in Zanzibar where he was born and finished his high school education and India where he attended a prestigious boarding school influenced the man who became Freddie Mercury.

This movie is, however, important in that it reminds a new generation and fans who weren’t aware that rock and popular music has been influenced by Asians. While certainly some songs like the Beatles’ “Love You To” (“Revolver”) have long been recognized as having an Asian Indian influence, in the case of Freddie Mercury, he, an Asian, was the influencer.

While the film “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t give us any insight into Freddie Mercury and comes off as a sanitized, simplistic version that conflates events as we rush toward the end, but the end is admittedly a glorious musical segment where Malek struts and postures with growls, whispers and octave climbs provided by both the real Mercury and a vocal impersonator. All that to re-create one man, one fabulous man who was born to be on stage and thrilled the world with his voice and music as a member of one of rock’s greatest bands: Queen.

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