Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a rock-operatic masterpiece, but the movie of the same name is an entirely different story. It fails to materialize into a musical odyssey about one of the greatest bands ever and is bogged down by a clunky script, awkward editing, and its utter disservice to Freddie Mercury. Make no mistake, none of this has anything to do with Rami Malek whose portrayal of the lead singer adds some much needed excitement to this rock slog. Malek is so good as Mercury that he deserves to win the Best Actor Oscar despite the onscreen disaster that birthed his performance.
The film is an unsalvageable mess that fails to understand Freddie Mercury's sexuality and his vibrant ethnic background. It mildly acknowledges the frontman's Parsi roots and his parents who immigrated from Zanzibar. Back then, Mercury was known by his birth name: Farrokh Bulsara. It's a defining moment when he changes it to Freddie Mercury, yet the film glazes over his parent's pain (particularly his father's) and refuses to emphasize how this shedding of "otherness" correlates to the racist 1970s town that Mercury grew up in. Forsaking his traditional family and their conservative Zoroastrian beliefs propelled Mercury into an entirely different lifestyle. In some ways, the distance from them sparked in Mercury a sexual discovery that eventually led the realization that he was gay.
Bohemian Rhapsody shrugs at the improbability of a flamboyant, gay man of Parsi descent fronting a rock band filled with straight, white dudes. It's a missed opportunity to address the racial challenges that were unfairly thrust on Mercury and how it effected his evolution as an artist and his personal self-discovery as a gay man.
The problem with the film is the endless leaps it takes without properly outlining how Freddie Mercury transformed into Freddie Mercury. Instead, Bohemian Rhapsody sluggishly tells the story with the benefit of hindsight. Malek's Mercury arrives onscreen fully formed and utterly confident that things will work out for Queen. Such a blasé approach to Mercury's history cheats us of all its complications.
The most glaring issue with the film is how it handles Mercury's sexuality. His relationship with Mary Austin is given ample time, outlining their trajectory from lovers to an engaged couple, even though it's apparent to everyone —including Mary — that Mercury is gay. One of the most moving scenes in the film occurs when Mercury finally comes out to Mary and admits that his feelings for her are deeply rooted. "I want you in my life," Mercury says after the break up. "Why," Mary responds.
Bohemian Rhapsody makes it very clear that Mercury and Mary nurtured a special connection that went beyond any of the other friendships in their lives. They were each other's biggest supporter and confidante. To live without the other would be impossible. Yet Mercury's relationship with Jim Hutton — the man who was at his side during the final years of his life — is egregiously played down. We barely witness their romance and courtship. Hutton appears onscreen briefly during one of Mercury's drug-fueled parties and then disappears, only to re-emerge towards the end of the film. We catch a glimpse of their romance and nothing more. All of this makes even less sense while watching the final scene in which both Mercury and Hutton are present together. Mercury takes Hutton to his parents' home and places his hand on his lover, thus implicitly coming out to his family. It's meant to be a poignant moment, but it feels rushed. After all, we never get the opportunity to watch Mercury and Hutton fall in love. It's an utter disservice to the two men and the life they built together.
Malek's transformation into Mercury, however, is a revelation. His British accent glides effortlessly and he simply melts into the role. The costume department's approximation of Mercury's famous overbite is a bit disconcerting, to be frank. The dental prosthetics turn Malek into a version of Mercury that should only exist on The Simpsons. When Malek loses Mercury's beloved mullet and grows a mustache is when he truly transcends as an actor. Although the vocals are an amalgamation, none of which include Malek's own voice, the decision is sound because who can truly recreate the magic of Mercury's tenor? From his bass low F to the soprano high F, Mercury's voice is legendary for a reason.
In the final sequence of Bohemian Rhapsody, we finally get to see Queen's unforgettable Live Aid performance. Malek struts on stage, perfectly echoing Mercury's insatiable presence and performance style. It is a visceral impersonation as Malek sprawls across the stage, using both his body and his voice to bring the songs to life. Malek's dynamic conviction, particularly during this climatic recreation of Queen's most iconic stage performance, is enough to warrant Malek the Best Actor Oscar.
A bolder, braver film might have explored Mercury's sexuality with integrity and the nuances of his complex relationship with his family and his ethnicity. Instead, what we are left with is Bohemian Rhapsody. One might argue that the film took a note from Mercury's songbook and played the narrative with melodramatic abandon, but is that really what we want to see? Mercury responded to his AIDs diagnosis with songs like "The Show Must Go On" and "Who Wants to Live Forever?" He wasn't one to runaway from the messiness of life. Luckily, Malek's unwavering commitment to recreating Freddie Mercury is nothing short of flabbergasting. He honors both Mercury the frontman of Queen and Mercury the person. His performance offers as much gusto and empathy as one could hope for. Malek is the only reason anyone should suffer through Bohemian Rhapsody, and it also exemplifies his unlimited range as an actor. If Malek doesn't snag that coveted Best Actor Oscar on Sunday night, then this would truly be a travesty.