Film & TV

Rock-and-Roll X-Man in Bohemian Rhapsody

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury (left) and Gwilym Lee as Brian May in Bohemian Rhapsody (Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox)
The film goes for kitsch and ignores everything interesting about Freddie Mercury.

The most disgraceful moment in Bohemian Rhapsody comes when a record producer states his skepticism about the title song, a 1975 hit single that gives this film its only marketability. The music executive is played by comic Mike Myers, whose 1992 film Wayne’s World revived “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a theme honoring nerd arrogance — the wrong-taste rebellion that defined unhip working-class fantasy and pleasure. (Myers’s gambit successfully boosted the song onto fin de siècle sales charts.)

Disgrace comes from the refusal of Bohemian Rhapsody’s filmmakers to recognize the class distinction of Myers’s coup. In the middle of a serious-tragic bio-pic about Freddie Mercury, front man for the rock group Queen who recorded the title song, the movie turns insultingly campy. As if the Millennial audience even remembers Wayne’s World, that ersatz ode to public-access TV subculture, the film replaces historical recollection with sarcasm. Myers’s cameo performance is a jest that contributes to the amnesia and ignorance typical of today’s diminished pop culture.

By encouraging Millennial filmgoers to think that they are different — smarter — than earlier crass businessmen, Bohemian Rhapsody falsifies pop-music history. The objection of the Myers character to the song (“Kids will never bang their heads to this”) points out its length and its musical and lyrical oddity but ignores that mid-’70s pop radio was replete with lengthy, guitar-heavy anthems (from “Hey Jude” to “American Pie”). It also leads the audience to misunderstand “Bohemian Rhapsody” as an extravagant novelty tune, part of that period’s British art-rock boom, which eventually laid the foundation for retreat by America’s post-Reagan teens who were settling into the complacency and self-satisfaction of the Clinton era.

What was “Bohemian Rhapsody”? A kitsch alternative to the Beatles’ pop-classic, high-art “A Day in the Life” but taken to the furthest reaches of art-rock pomposity, then mixing those ambitions with the comical and absurd. All that kitsch was driven by Mercury’s thrilling, quasi-operatic high notes and Streisand-style excess. Appreciating this gives a clue to Freddie Mercury’s aspirations as an Asian who was so deeply assimilated into British rock culture that he, ironically, became one of its avatars.

Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t help us understand these essential, pop-culture ironies, so we fall victim to the unenlightening Hollywood commercialism — overlooking how the blue-collar nerds of Wayne’s World complemented Mercury’s own lower-middle-class background.

Are bio-pics about individuals or about fame? Bohemian Rhapsody hands us the puzzle of Mercury’s showbiz persona but shies away from insight about the man born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, who relocated to Middlesex, England, when he was a teenager. In the film, Mercury explains, “My family escaped Muslim persecution.”

That migration should motivate a filmmaker who was politically and culturally curious, but director Bryan Singer (best known for the awful X-Men comic-book movies) ignores everything that is interesting about Mercury: His vocal power, stage flamboyance, Parsi ethnicity, the family’s Zoroastrian teachings, plus his pre-AIDS-era sexual activity should make for fascinating political and cultural fare. His ethnicity and sexuality should be more than simple tokens of diversity.

As in the X-Men movies, Singer can’t do people; which means he can’t do artistry. Mercury leads a struggling rock band to stardom through his desire to escape the limits of his ethnic heritage, a history that one nonetheless hears in the atavistic quality of his voice — the surprising subharmonics of his singing (think Robert Plant, plus intensity). Perhaps it would take a radical film artist to explore this essence, yet Singer’s hackneyed approach lacks the necessary daring. When Mercury finally moves past his bisexual refuge into libertinage, Singer can’t do Ken Russell–style orgiastic cinema, either.

Rami Malek impersonates Mercury without the leonine torso that gave the star his androgynous swagger; instead, Malek’s runty performance is half Diana Ross, half Mick Jagger but without charisma. Given to pouting, he’s called “an angry lizard,” which is sufficient for Singer’s slithering approach to sexual decadence.

Centered around Queen’s reunion at the 1985 Live Aid charity concert, Bohemian Rhapsody pities the compulsive egotism that tempted Mercury to split from his bandmates and trust devious influence (a gay villain who pities himself as “a poor Irish Catholic boy from Belfast”). It then turns laughably PC (a gay savior who advises Mercury, “Come see me when you like yourself”).

In traditional musical bio-pics, a star composes a personal tune that shows his virtue and wins audience approval: George Cohan’s “Mary,” a valentine to his wife, in Yankee Doodle Dandy, or George Gershwin’s eponymous ethnic-hybrid concerto in Rhapsody in Blue. In Bohemian Rhapsody, Mercury writes the forgettable “Love of My Life” for his conventional white British girlfriend (played by Lucy Boynton), whose wise quip “we are family” provides the film’s ultimate PC confirmation.

As a backstage story, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t live up to its bohemian, post-glam-rock promise. Because of Queen’s enjoyable discography, it is more watchable than the recent A Star Is Born, which fabricates silly showbiz legend for viewers of American Idol, The Voice, and The X Factor. But when the Live Aid audience sings along to Mercury’s nonsense anthem “Radio Ga Ga,” a better filmmaker than Singer would vanquish the competition.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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