October 23, 2018 at 2:26 am PDT | by John Paul King
Queen biopic crowns a queer hero, at last

Rami Malek channels Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Photo Credit Nick Delaney, image courtesy of 20th Century Fox).

When a film has as long and troubled a production history as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic which was first announced in 2010, it doesn’t bode well for a satisfying final product.

Even more ominous, when the film’s first trailer devoted much of its screen time to his relationship with long-term female partner Mary Austin, there was widespread concern over whether the movie was going to “straightwash” Mercury – who never publicly declared his sexual orientation despite his flamboyant stage persona, but spent the last years of his life with a same-sex partner before dying of complications from AIDS in 1991.

There’s good news to report on both fronts.

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” despite its difficult birthing process, is as slick and entertaining as anyone could reasonably hope.  Better still, it puts Freddie’s sexual identity front and center.

The film tracks Queen from Mercury’s entry to the band in 1970, through their rise to superstardom to their appearance at Live Aid in 1985.  Within that context, it follows Mercury’s personal relationships – with his significant others, with his fame, and with his own sexuality – and his struggle toward self-acceptance, culminating in the HIV diagnosis which would eventually end his life.

It’s the charting of that journey which makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” more than just a crowd-pleaser.  Screenwriter Anthony McCarten portrays the singer as the product of a devout religious upbringing – deeply closeted, perhaps even in denial about his sexual nature, despite his boundary-pushing presentation and personality – for whom fame affords both the temptation and the freedom to explore his taboo longings.  His struggle to embrace himself for who he truly is becomes an integral part, if not the central focus, of the film’s narrative.

In his real life, Mercury never officially came out.  He avoided, he downplayed, he obfuscated.  When rumors began to circulate that he had contracted HIV/AIDS, he flat out denied it; indeed, he did not publicly confirm his diagnosis until the day before he passed away.  From a contemporary perspective, it’s easy to criticize these choices.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” leaves such judgments to the viewer, however, and instead presents Mercury as he famously was – private, closely guarded, and wary about public perception.  For all the bombastic theatricality of his stage persona, he was an introvert in his “real” life – a contrast the movie conveys well, in no small part thanks to the performance of its star, Rami Malek.

Malek, though at times somewhat hampered by the prosthetic teeth required to simulate the singer’s famously massive overbite, fully inhabits the role and delivers a heartfelt and insightful portrayal that honors Freddie’s legacy and his truth.  He shines brightest in the recreations of Queen’s live performances, capturing Mercury’s electrifying onstage presence with every move and gesture – painstakingly choreographed, but executed with as much spontaneity as if they were his own.

As for the cast that surrounds him, it’s top-notch.  There are too many fine performances to single out here, but special mention is deserved for Lucy Boynton, whose tender performance as Austin helps illuminate the deep and genuine bond she shared with Mercury throughout his life, and for Tom Hollander’s delightfully dry turn as Queen manager Jim Beach.  Also fun is a barely-recognizable Mike Myers as EMI executive Ray Foster.

As for the movie’s approach to its larger story, the rise of Queen to fame and fortune is presented with a flashy showmanship fitting of the group’s over-the-top style.  It also packs in a lot of information – perhaps too much.  Like most biopics, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is handicapped by the need to tell an entire life story in an impossibly short time, and it fails to avoid the usual flaws – full of elisions, conflations, contrivances, and clichés, it has an inescapable “Hollywood” feel that tends to undermine any sense of real authenticity.

Still, with the extensive participation of the band’s surviving members, as well as their manager, there’s still a ring of truth, albeit a polished and simplified one, and most audiences are not likely to quibble over formula when a film is as entertaining as this one – and entertaining it is.  Slickly packaged, lavishly produced, full of exuberant energy and good-natured high spirits, it’s an impossible film not to get caught up in.  It has tremendous fun with its 70s and 80s setting; the designers have a field day with the outrageous fashions and hair, served up with the just the right mix of fond nostalgia and winking irony.

And of course, there’s the music of Queen; the film’s soundtrack – which seems designed as a sing-a-long experience – makes sure to touch on all the band’s greatest hits, and there’s plenty of fan service in the film’s re-enactments of key “behind-the-scenes” moments (such as the creation of the title song’s famed operatic interlude) which likely fall somewhere between fact and legend.

What’s most remarkable is how cohesive the whole thing is – particularly considering the well-publicized departure from the project by director Bryan Singer, who was reportedly sidelined by “a personal health matter,” and his subsequent replacement by Dexter Fletcher.  Per DGA rules, Singer retains sole credit on the finished film, but Fletcher deserves kudos for maintaining the integrity of the movie’s vision and shepherding it into a seamless finished form.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” seems poised to be a big hit, and deservedly so.  Sure, it’s mainstream fluff, but there’s nothing wrong with that when it’s done this well; and in its decision to address Mercury’s complex sexual identity, it achieves real significance.  It would have been easy enough to allude discreetly, perhaps, to his same-sex relationships, or to downplay his role as the first major rock star to die of AIDS, but this movie does neither.  Instead, it unequivocally celebrates the icon’s truth, arguably allowing him to “come out” officially for the first time – and in doing so, cements his well-deserved status as the queer hero we’ve always known him to be.

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