Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) by Bryan Singer
Review by Logan Kenny
Content Warning: Discussions of Sexual Assault / Homophobia
At the time of writing, Bohemian Rhapsody has had a presence in pretty much every major award shows’ nomination list. It won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture and Actor (Drama) and looks certain to grab a series of Oscar nominations. [Editor’s Note: It sure did.] In a year of astonishing works of art, this is one of the films most celebrated by the Hollywood elite. Bohemian Rhapsody made a lot of money on top of this, is still in theatres worldwide, and its filmmaker is already rumoured to be taking on new projects. Despite any critiques it may have received, its momentum seems impossible to stop. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t; regardless, the impact it has already made is something that can’t be reversed. It will exist forever, be preserved forever and impact the thoughts and perceptions of millions of people. A review can’t change that. So why even read one?
A review about this film will likely be read by those who already knew about the failures of Singer’s work: the scandals surrounding him in his personal life, as well as how the film misrepresents significant aspects of Freddie Mercury’s life in a way that belittle and erase elements of his identity. I guess the purpose of this is to elaborate on the specific failings of the film for those who couldn’t bring themselves to watch it, and to, hopefully, bring a little catharsis to anyone angry or drained about how Hollywood portrayed one of our heroes. This is for all those who feel like TimesUp hasn’t changed a single thing, to those queer people who wanted a story about a hero and watched as it shamed, degraded, erased, and desexualised him while having this disguised as LGBT representation. For all those people who are victims of the sort of assault perpetrated on a mass scale by Bryan Singer and men like him. For those who feel lost at a time where he is praised and celebrated. For everyone that wanted to spend 2 and a half hours celebrating the life of an icon only to have him spat on. This movie should have been something more, something uplifting and beautiful, but it is not, and all we can do is speak out about its problems together, to not stay silent.
Freddie Mercury deserves better. He was a man who made millions of queer people feel empowered in the middle of a genocidal period for our community, a man who was killed as a result of the US government’s refusal to help treat AIDS victims out of addict-shaming and violent bigotry. He was a huge, glamourous voice at a time where so many of us were voiceless and scared to express in case we were beaten down, called a series of slurs and left to die. He deserved better than a film that lies about who he is.
The first major thing I noticed that made me sick to my stomach is how Freddie’s sexuality is framed initially in a sequence of sexual assault. Freddie, while drunk at a party in his home, inappropriately touches another man, and his dialogue is very invasive and forceful. He shows an intense desire to get what he wants and a disregard for personal boundaries; he appears to use his fame and status as coercion. The film does not view this as a problem. This is how the romance with his life partner Jim Hutton is initially established – as one based on predatory grounds.
The casual romanticization of coercion by the film in an era of increased awareness regarding predatory sexual actions is bad enough, but significantly worse when you realize that it’s based off of lies. According to Hutton himself, they first met at a gay bar and Mercury offered to buy him a drink. Hutton didn’t recognize him, declined the offer, and that was all, until over a year later. The same offer was made, this time was accepted and their relationship grew from there. There is absolutely nothing similar about the depiction of reality in the film and the real man’s perspective. It strikes me as cruel and deplorable to transform a meeting between the subject of your film and the man he died with to something that justifies sexual manipulation. It shows a considerable lack of empathy for Hutton or Mercury and slanders the latter’s image posthumously for a generation of people who wouldn’t know the truth. This isn’t just a case of altering the truth slightly to make for more compelling viewing (as most biopics do), but a case of actively lying about the circumstances that took place in order to push another agenda. This alone would have rendered Singer unable to properly tell Mercury’s story but the real question we have to ask ourselves is: why would a man accused of coercing then anally raping multiple underage boys alter the truth in order to romanticize coercive sexual behaviour?
The slandering against queerness doesn’t end at the initial depiction. Freddie’s relationship with his former fiancee, Mary Austin, is given far more screen time and romantic connection than his relationship to the man he died with. This results in the sequence where Freddie, going through the process of realizing his bisexuality, comes out to her and it’s treated like a gut shot. She shames him and responds by denying his expression of sexuality and labels him as simply gay, which is greeted by a solemn admittive look on Freddie’s face, directly implying that she’s telling the truth. The continual slandering and dehumanizing of bisexual men as just being gay in disguise is something that this film reinforces, and it’s insulting to me as a bi-man to watch a movie about a hero of mine being forced to give up his own sexuality because of biphobic writing. There is no reason for his identity to be erased in this way, so publicly and pointlessly, if only to appeal to the supposedly liberal minded homophobes who can’t understand the possibility of a man having desires for more than one gender. It trades in honesty and compassion for lies and erasure.
The handling of the sequence is not about the heartbreak that comes from two people who love each other not being able to be with each other anymore; it’s about a woman ending a relationship because her partner desires men as well as women. It’s about homophobic attitudes and straight people’s forcefulness over being the arbiters of our sexuality. It’s not framed as that; it’s framed as tragic on her behalf moreso than his. His subsequent romance with Jim is barely depicted or mentioned; there is no catharsis for him as a queer man with the people he interacts with or the man he died with. Instead, there are only sequences of constant sadness that he can’t be with the woman he loved. Shots linger far too long on his beaten face on the phone with her convey the gradual realization that she’s moved on. A cishet woman’s relationship to him becomes the predominant factor in the romantic life of a man who spent seven whole years with another man in love – and this movie is considered by some straights as representation we deserve? It’s not even portrayed in an honest or empathetic way, about how coming out can affect the people in your life and how while it could hurt to give up what you have, it’s important for you to embrace yourself and for the straights to let you live your life. It’s not impossible to bring a cishet perspective that doesn’t erase the queer one, or become the primary focus in the aftermath when queer love begins.
There’s also his depiction of promiscuity and his AIDS, both of which are implied to be linked. It’s suggested by the film’s reprehensible depiction of the disease that was a genocidal force amongst queer people – the disease that killed a generation of us and left damage that can never be repaired – that it’s Freddie’s fault for engaging in hedonism. He is shamed by his fellow band members (whose involvement in the film is clear and proves them as shameful human beings) for engaging in drugs, alcohol and casual sex while they are proper and pristine heterosexuals. The film takes their stance in a particular party sequence: we are with them from the outside looking in on this homoerotic freak, shaming him for being so damn improper. It feels like anti gay propaganda from decades ago, especially considering the fact that they were all rock stars in the 70s and 80s, and the reports on their frequent cocaine use are part of rock legend. By trying to cover up their own behaviours as rockstars in these decades, they leave their former friend out to dry, which is utterly loathsome. He can’t have sex either! You’re not allowed to sexualize a man who notoriously loved sex because that doesn’t fit into the idea of Mercury that can be marketed to masses.
Gay sex is so often viewed as vulgar and immoral that it’s just ignored here, the homophobic approach to sexuality is expressed just as much in what it doesn’t depict as what it does. I’m not asking for hardcore gay pornography – just something that feels real, that doesn’t feel it needs to hide his sexual desires until they can use it for his death. He is shamed for being a queen, he is shamed for being a hedonist, but there is never any real depiction of his hedonism or his sexuality. The only moment where it’s even hinted that Freddie feels lust for men is the one previously mentioned. In the movie about his life, the only moments in which his queerness matters are: (A) in relation to a straight woman’s reaction, (B) in a scene of sexual assault, and (C) his death as a result of AIDS. Not even an undisputed musical icon is allowed to keep a grasp on his sexual identity after his death. Imagine how it’ll be for the rest of us who don’t have his star power.
His AIDS, however, is reduced to the background for the most part. The film takes an apolitical stance on the disease and frames it mostly as a tragedy for the music instead of what it really was. There is no politicization of his death, no anger, no hard sequences of pain, no empathy, just generic monologues and false sentiments about a disease that destroyed my people. I wasn’t expecting a Hollywood film to come close to something like BPM’s empathetic nuanced depiction of the degenerative aspect of living with AIDS, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be rendered as a footnote in a Great Man biopic, ignoring any nuance or detail in favor of sheer bullshit manipulation. The millions that died deserve better than having their killer be stripped down and glossed up to appeal to a widespread audience of bigots who would have avoided real AIDS victims in the streets.
This movie refuses to reckon with any of the details or realities, and even messes with the timeframe of his diagnosis to milk the most melodrama they can out of a real man’s life. AIDS broke us, the deaths caused by that disease left so many of our elders either traumatized or dead. It was purposeful murder from governments on a worldwide scale because they didn’t want us to live. They viewed us as nothing more than filth to be eradicated. This is the reality of the disease that killed him, one of the biggest stars in the world died as a result of inaction. And the movie disregards that, lies about that, ignoring everything about the nuances or the histories or the politics, and leaving nothing but slut shaming and cursed monologues. There is an astounding lack of empathy towards anyone who ever lost someone to AIDS, to the people that died and to the people right now who are still living with it. How can anyone look at this and not be repulsed to their core?
For those who believe that I should separate real world contexts from the work and the art from the artist, ignoring everything said about the violent nature of the lies and the sanitation of the disease/his sexuality, here you go: The filmmaking itself is indefensible. Singer’s never been a master of the composition and the production problems only made the visual shoddiness more noticeable. Frames are blurred, out of focus, in awkward angles, all over the place and generally redundant. No shot has presence or artistry, the camera feels placed in whatever angle fits everyone in, and each take feels rushed for efficiency’s sake. The editing and audio work doesn’t help. Shots cut to each other raggedly and without presence, the transitions are consistently abysmal and even the Queen background audio feels diluted. In a movie about a band, you never believe that anyone’s performing their instruments because the mix hollows them out and processes them through studio sheen.
The ADR is a little off too; the jarring transition from simple stripped down practice to the studio version sounds wrong and completely dissonant. You can’t have mixing like that! There needs to be consistency! If you plan on shooting the bassist playing a riff on his own without the recording mics set up before transitioning that into the full band, you can’t just make the bass sound exactly the same and add a bunch of studio effects to the audio that are done in post. It does seem like the bass mix they had was the same one that they used for the studio version, which makes that mistake initially understandable, but this also means the film doesn’t understand the nuances of how production impacts on how instruments sound. Having a sudden change from a bass without a mic to glossy studio sheen in house is a very noticeable error; it sounds dreadful and makes the track itself seem totally artificial. It could have been fixed by just cutting to them filming the video instead of them recording the song with the finished audio playing over it. This may be a nitpick – but it’s a movie about fucking Queen! Even for the live performances, the music sounds manufactured, like the Queen cover band at a high school prom. That’s a big problem in a movie in which the widespread appeal is the music that Mercury and the band created.
The performances are universally bad. Malek’s one of the best performers of his generation – and he is desperately trying – but he manages nothing but a hollow impression of the real man. His turn here is a continuation of the awful belief that acting as a real person should be about impersonation instead of performance. Everyone else is a mixture of forgettable and insufferable, genuinely not worth talking about with the exception of Mike Myers, whose entire atrocious extended cameo is a self referential throwback to his Wayne’s World cover of the title track.
The pacing is Biopic 101 and so horribly done, that the 2+ hour runtime feels comparatively endless, shooting from year to year, studio to studio, with no interest in any human moments except ones that they can use for clip reels for the Oscars. The script feels like a checklist of Queen moments they need to fulfill: the LiveAid performance with the worst crowd effects I’ve ever seen, the creations of the Big Queen Hit Songs, the disputes with the label with Myers himself screaming about the track never being a hit (what do you think the editor cuts to after that). The Wikipedia-page structuring and the dismal need to over-dramatise every moment in their history is impossible to look at and not sigh.
For example, the creation of “Bohemian Rhapsody” itself is a disastrous parodic portrayal of studio recording, with members of the band, magically, as if out of thin air, conjuring perfect sounds and concepts that would be included in the finished version. There is no depiction of hard work or collaboration really, just a quick rendering of empty soundbites by people who don’t care about or understand the creative process. The “We Will Rock You” creation is even worse, with a band member conceiving of the core beat, Freddie dramatically asking what the lyric is and the film immediately cutting to a live performance of their iconic hit. Every sequence of them working on their craft is like this: signposted, obnoxious, and lacking any sort of humanity. These are made worse by how Singer decides to frame the sequences, in the most overlit, lazy, and hackneyed way possible. Apparently he’s trying to convince his audience that filmmaking as barren and obviously constructed as this should be accepted, that apathy towards originality and craft should be the norm. It’s almost ironic that a movie about a pioneer about rock music is the embodiment of corporate manufacturing.
Even with all of this – even with the fundamental failures of the film as a depiction of his life, his sexuality, his death, his romantic life, his musicianship, his craft, his very essence – the worst thing is the filmmaker behind it. I mentioned earlier the correlations of Singer’s sexual assaults in how the film warps aspects of Mercury’s life, but it can’t be understated how bad it is that this film was directed by a pedophile who is reported to be crucially involved in a trafficking ring of young boys (to the extent that a documentary feature was made about it). This man is being celebrated for his terrible work. His movie made enough money that he can do whatever he wants. #MeToo doesn’t apply to him. He’ll work again; actors will work with him; film crews will, too. They’ll stand on their stages, holding the trophies covered in the blood of sexual assault victims everywhere, and smile for the cameras. No one major will say anything against him. The elite will just continue to wear their Time’s Up pins and be silent when it counts. Just because you refuse to acknowledge him by name out of publicity, doesn’t make you progressive, it makes you complicit. This dismal film’s celebration by the media, by the industry, and the people within it proves that people don’t care about the quality of art or the safety of rape victims, but whatever keeps their status quo the same – whatever gives them the publicity they crave.
This is a film made for people who believe themselves to be woke because they’re sad that a queer musician whose songs they liked is dead, while they ignore the queer people in their lives who need help and laugh about the word “faggot” to their friends. It’s a movie for people who need sanitization and lies to be able to celebrate or appreciate artists that aren’t heterosexual. It’s a movie for those afraid of us to pretend that they support us, and a movie that further normalizes the influence of pedophilia in Hollywood. This movie makes me feel hopeless that nothing can change – that we will be cursed with the plight of bigotry and the exploitation of children forever – and I hate feeling cynical. It runs through my veins like venom and I find myself unable to control my worst impulses of anger. I hate that we live in a world where this can be celebrated.
I just need to keep being proud of my queerness: I am attracted to men and women and non binary people, and no one can take that away from me. And no one can ever take that away from you. Some of us will outlive these bastards and we are here to make the next generation as good as we can, and while it might seem hopeless, if we can make one queer kid feel safe, to me it’s worth it. I don’t know how much longer I have, any day I could be in an incident where I am beaten and killed for my sexual expression. I live in a world where my trans friends and family are at constant risk of violence or death for being themselves. The world is burning and a lot of people are cruel and I don’t have any answers to fix it. All we can do right now is fuck, love, dance, sing, scream, wail, cry, kiss, hold and live while we still can, and give whatever we have left to making sure that there’s never a victimized child like the ones Singer assaulted ever again.
Rest in peace, Freddie; I hope you’re okay, wherever you may be.