Can a character survive if his story is taken away?
This is a risky question for any storyteller to entertain. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the makers of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a film that markets itself as a Queen biopic and waits to deliver on that promise until the latter portion of its runtime, until it’s too late.
Leading up to that transition into legitimate storytelling, Bryan Singer’s (“X-Men”) “Bohemian Rhapsody” is hardly a story. Instead, the disjointed scenes chronicling Queen’s rise seem like a highlight reel: one scene per episode of success in Queen’s career. The effects of this approach are emotionally varied but unvaryingly detrimental. On one hand, the highlight reel erases struggle in favor of a dizzyingly rapid, romantic and easy road to success. The dialogue also slackens without a story to support it, so the filmmakers’ habit of writing their theses about the significance of Queen into conversations between members of Queen and record executives feels contrived and questionable in turn.
The direct consequence of the vacancy of story and the attempt to fill this void, however, is the effects on Freddie Mercury’s characterization. Though Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) makes the most of every scene, the answer to the opening inquiry — can a character survive without a story? — is still, by and large: No.
The filmmakers, having opted for the convenience of the highlight reel over the tedium of crafting a story, must then portray Mercury within this framework. So, in the fragmented spirit of highlight reels, they truncate Mercury’s identity crises. In doing so, not only do they squander Malek’s versatility as an actor, but they also ignore the realities of how humans come to terms with their social identities.
Initially, “Bohemian Rhapsody” emphasizes Mercury’s racial identity. A handful of early scenes — including a tense disagreement with his conservative father about nightclub visits and Mercury’s family’s disappointment after Mercury had his given name, Farrokh Bulsara, legally changed — suggest Mercury struggled to embrace his Parsi heritage. Then, Mercury leaves home, and the filmmakers drop this development entirely; they fixate abruptly on Mercury’s sexual identity instead. This truncation is problematic not only for the purposes of biopic but for intersectionality. Why can’t Mercury confront his racial, national and sexual identities synchronously? Why must anyone ever be reduced to one social identity? What was convenient for the filmmakers disenfranchises those who identify with multiple marginalized groups.
In part three of Mercury’s truncated identity crises, Mercury hits a low point and suffers from loneliness and substance abuse. On the one hand, these challenges transcend social identity and initiate a long-awaited character arc. In other words, Mercury becomes a character and “Bohemian Rhapsody” remembers it’s his story. On the other hand, it’s too late for the film to fully recover from the absence of a story, so his low point as a character cannot be ascribed to a preexisting character arc; the only factor audiences have to point to is the most recent identity crisis, and that is Mercury’s coming out as bisexual. Once again, the filmmakers’ pseudo-storytelling inadvertently wounds the marginalized communities the film and Mercury’s portrayal should have empowered.
Though by no means does “Bohemian Rhapsody” becoming a story right its wrongs, it gives the film the narrative momentum it needs. In turn, the film is able to work toward a climax, and it delivers. The concluding sequence, capturing Queen’s 1985 performance at Live Aid, is the invigorating, rewarding antithesis of the highlight reel. It is patiently, unromantically shot. And for all the ways “Bohemian Rhapsody” disrespected Mercury as an individual, the film always respected Queen’s music, and this scene is no exception. Most notably, this scene proves one of the theses about Queen’s significance haphazardly inserted into dialogue at the beginning of the film: Everything Queen did was out of love and respect for their fans. After watching this sequence, comprised of alternating footage of Queen’s knockout performance and the audience’s enthusiastic responses to it, there is no doubt about Queen’s distinctive love for their fan base.
While the recovery portion of the film doesn’t compensate for its initial series of shortcomings, it opens up two possibilities. It will likely leave the audience members who managed to hurdle the initial disappointments with a craving for Queen’s music and, hopefully, the raw materials to construct a more holistic portrait of Mercury as well.