Chris­tos Tsi­olkas on what Bo­hemian Rhap­sody misses

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - CHRIS­TOS TSI­OLKAS is the au­thor of The Slap and Bar­racuda. He is The Satur­day Pa­per’s film critic.

There is one very good rea­son to see Bo­hemian Rhap­sody and that is for Rami Malek’s por­trayal of Fred­die Mer­cury, the lead singer of rock band Queen. Mer­cury’s stage per­sona was an amal­gam of glam flam­boy­ance, cock-rock pos­tur­ing and sly sex­ual teas­ing; and later, he added el­e­ments of the gay ma­cho clone aes­thetic to this per­sona. The dan­ger for any ac­tor tak­ing this role is to suc­cumb to mere mimicry, but Malek has made some very in­tel­li­gent choices as an ac­tor here, in­cor­po­rat­ing el­e­ments of camp ar­ti­fi­cial­ity in his per­for­mance, par­tic­u­larly when we see Mer­cury on stage. He also im­bues the role with an aching vul­ner­a­bil­ity, a deep sense of Mer­cury’s lone­li­ness.

In Malek’s sym­pa­thetic im­mer­sion in the role we come to un­der­stand how rock mu­sic of­fered Mer­cury a means of es­cap­ing his dual sense of be­ing an out­sider; as a clos­eted gay youth, and also as the child of an im­mi­grant Parsee fam­ily, a wog, in ’60s and ’70s Bri­tain. We per­ceive Mer­cury’s warmth and shy­ness, but also see the roots of his dif­fi­dence and some­times queru­lous and an­tag­o­nis­tic be­hav­iour. They arise from the push-pull of de­sir­ing so much to be ac­cepted but also from his con­stantly be­ing on the look­out for signs of dis­ap­proval and con­tempt. It is only when he is on stage, when he is work­ing to claim the love of an au­di­ence, that he finds re­lease. He struts, he flirts, he com­mands. He wins our love.

All our un­der­stand­ing of this com­pli­cated man comes from Malek’s acu­men and pas­sion­ate in­volve­ment in the role. The script, by An­thony McCarten, is schematic and unin­spired. The fault is not only his, of course. Bryan Singer, who di­rected, keeps rein­ing in the per­form­ers, stay­ing faith­ful to the stolid­ness of the writ­ing. There’s no flam­boy­ance or risk-tak­ing when it comes to di­rect­ing.

Part of the rea­son for the film’s slip­shod style might arise from the dom­i­nat­ing in­volve­ment of two mem­bers of Queen, Brian May and Roger Tay­lor, as pro­duc­ers. The pro­ject was ini­tially to star Sacha Baron Co­hen as Mer­cury, and to be scripted by Peter Mor­gan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Damned United). Singer came on late as a di­rec­tor and the film’s pro­duc­tion was no­to­ri­ously fraught, with Singer fired two weeks be­fore prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­phy was com­pleted. He was re­placed by Dex­ter Fletcher, di­rec­tor of the up­com­ing El­ton John biopic, Rock­et­man, but Singer still re­ceives the di­rec­tion credit for the film.

From all ac­counts, May and Tay­lor wanted to make a film that was rev­er­en­tial to the band’s fan­base, one that was also cir­cum­spect about Mer­cury’s life. They should have been pay­ing more at­ten­tion to how their mu­sic was rep­re­sented on film. There is a telling mo­ment when Mer­cury wants to en­cour­age the band to in­cor­po­rate disco and syn­the­sis­ers into their mu­sic. The band’s re­luc­tance is un­der­stand­able. Queen’s rai­son d’être, af­ter all, is arms-pump­ing sta­dium rock. But Mer­cury’s in­sis­tence was ab­so­lutely right. It led to bass gui­tarist John Dea­con tak­ing a more prom­i­nent role in the mu­si­cian­ship of the band, and what­ever you think of Queen, the post-disco crunch of “An­other One Bites the Dust”, “I Want to Break Free” and even the lyri­cally mad “Ra­dio Ga Ga” must be counted among their most de­fin­i­tive works.

Though I love the work Malek does in this film, it is tan­talis­ing to think of what Baron Co­hen would have brought to a por­trayal of Mer­cury. Sleazi­ness – un­apolo­getic and ag­gres­sively in-your-face – is an in­deli­ble part of his ac­tor’s per­sona. It isn’t there at all in Malek’s per­for­mance. Save for the ten­der­ness in the love scenes with Mary, his part­ner, played by Lucy Boyn­ton, the off­stage Mer­cury is sur­pris­ingly sex­u­ally timid. I have no doubt Malek is ca­pa­ble of ex­press­ing a po­tent sex­ual en­ergy and his fail­ure to do so in this role must be due to choices made by the film­mak­ers.

There is a snake in the gar­den of Queen’s suc­cess, and that is Paul Prenter, Mer­cury’s per­sonal as­sis­tant, who was ul­ti­mately to be­tray the singer by re­veal­ing his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, promis­cu­ity and HIV-pos­i­tive di­ag­no­sis to Bri­tish me­dia. Prenter was Mer­cury’s lover for years, a fact that is sub­tly elided in the film. What we see in­stead is Prenter’s role in in­tro­duc­ing Mer­cury to the highly sex­u­alised Ger­man gay club scene. Those scenes are filmed in dark­ness, omi­nous elec­tronic mu­sic bangs in our ears, and the im­pli­ca­tion is clear that it is this aban­don­ment to sex and drugs that led to Mer­cury’s con­tract­ing of AIDS. What we never see or are made to com­pre­hend is the lib­er­a­tion Mer­cury might have ex­pe­ri­enced in this world.

Prenter, played by the charis­matic and hand­some Allen Leech, may well have been a du­plic­i­tous snake, but as soon as he smiles con­fi­dently at Mer­cury, you un­der­stand ex­actly why the singer would want to fuck him. Prenter was a Belfast lad and a more cu­ri­ous film might have ex­plored the pos­si­ble com­mu­nion he and Mer­cury found as cultural out­siders in what is a highly WASP Lon­don. I was hun­gry for a sex scene be­tween them. In­stead, the film as­sid­u­ously and monotonously af­firms fam­ily as that which Mer­cury lacks. It is only when he re­alises the mem­bers of Queen are his true fam­ily that redemp­tion is pos­si­ble.

It might be thought I am ar­gu­ing that such a de­mon­i­sa­tion of sex­ual sub­cul­tures re­flects a ho­mo­pho­bic anx­i­ety in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Mer­cury’s sex­u­al­ity. I think the film’s un­so­phis­ti­cated link­age of AIDS and sex­ual aban­don­ment is of con­cern. But some­thing more con­fus­ing and more in­dica­tive of our con­tem­po­rary age is go­ing on – the film­mak­ers are not only con­demn­ing ho­mo­sex­ual promis­cu­ity but all forms of un­in­hib­ited sex­u­al­ity. Mer­cury’s lone­li­ness is, in the end, partly re­deemed by giv­ing him a salt-of-the-earth part­ner, Jim Hut­ton, who has noth­ing to do with the mu­sic world and who rep­re­sents sub­ur­ban re­spectabil­ity. Like the other mem­bers of Queen, Mer­cury fi­nally gets to have his loyal and un­der­stand­ing spouse.

It is in the film’s favour that ev­ery cast mem­ber is com­mit­ted and work­ing hard to be convincing in their roles. That is true for Boyn­ton, for Leech, for all the ac­tors play­ing the mem­bers of Queen, for Ai­dan Gillen who plays their man­ager, and es­pe­cially for Aaron McCusker who in a few short scenes ably sketches

Hut­ton’s in­tegrity and good hu­mour. If Prenter is the ser­pent, I am happy to be­lieve that in real life Hut­ton was a saviour. Yet, when we re­turn to the dy­namism and power of Mer­cury be­fore an au­di­ence, when we see him work the crowd – make love to them – we know some­thing has been de­lib­er­ately omit­ted from this film.

I saw Bo­hemian Rhap­sody not long af­ter see­ing the new ver­sion of A Star Is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Di­rected by Cooper, A Star Is Born is a much bet­ter film. He’s clearly learnt much from work­ing with David O. Rus­sell, and on the ev­i­dence of this di­rec­to­rial de­but, has some­thing of that di­rec­tor’s al­most preter­nat­u­ral in­stinct for sto­ry­telling. Lady Gaga is in­ex­pe­ri­enced as an ac­tor but Cooper’s han­dling of her per­for­mance is gen­er­ous and pro­tec­tive, and he makes her emo­tional naked­ness in­te­gral to the nar­ra­tive. This for­mi­da­ble vo­cal­ist has de­servedly gar­nered a tremen­dous amount of au­di­ence good­will. I saw the film with a full house, and it was ex­cit­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence our com­mu­nal de­sire for her to suc­ceed. But as with Bo­hemian Rhap­sody, there is a sex­ual con­ser­vatism to the film that made me re­sist its charm. A Star Is Born’s story is in­her­ently masochis­tic, with all pre­vi­ous ver­sions be­ing com­pro­mised by the idea that the woman’s artis­tic ca­reer will al­ways play sec­ond fid­dle to her man’s. I was hop­ing for a trans­for­ma­tive re­work­ing of the plot, one that fi­nally gave the fe­male per­former an equal stake in her artis­tic drives. But this new ver­sion asks us to be­lieve that the fe­male per­former is not prey to the self-doubt, the delu­sions, the temp­ta­tions and the sheer self­ish grit of be­ing a suc­cess.

As in all pre­vi­ous ver­sions, it is Cooper, as coun­try­rock singer Jack­son Maine, who suc­cumbs to al­co­holism and drug ad­dic­tion. That this might be a pos­si­bil­ity for Lady Gaga’s Ally is never se­ri­ously a con­sid­er­a­tion. There is a chaste­ness to A Star Is Born, a de­lib­er­ate turn­ing away from the sybaritic plea­sures that have so long been as­so­ci­ated with fame. It’s a re­work­ing that is os­ten­si­bly in align­ment with #MeToo and con­tem­po­rary sex­ual pol­i­tics. But the con­flu­ence of fem­i­nism and an al­most pu­ri­tan sus­pi­cion of plea­sure makes for a strange fu­sion of the tra­di­tional and the rad­i­cal. Good girls don’t do sex?

And as Bo­hemian Rhap­sody sug­gests, if boys want to be good, they shouldn’t do sex ei­ther. Not sex that in­volves risk and dan­ger, ex­tremes and in­tox­i­ca­tion.

The camp sig­nif­i­cance of Mer­cury’s life and mu­sic, the iconic sta­tus that all ver­sions of A Star Is Born have for met­ro­pol­i­tan gay cul­tures, must have been un­der­stood by the re­spec­tive film­mak­ers. A Star Is Born ac­knowl­edges that his­tory by hav­ing Jack­son dis­cover Ally in a drag bar where she belts out a ver­sion of “La Vie en Rose”. But it is merely a nod to camp; it keeps its dis­tance from it.

Camp is a sen­si­bil­ity that is no­to­ri­ously hard to pin down, and even the most fa­mous at­tempt, Su­san Son­tag’s 1964 es­say, “Notes on ‘Camp’”, was quickly un­der­mined by the shift­ing bound­aries of what the term des­ig­nated. Cer­tainly, it is irony, de­tach­ment and, yes, as Son­tag wrote, of­ten a pref­er­ence for “bad art” over “good”. But camp is also a de­fi­ant and cheeky ac­knowl­edge­ment that the out­sider can have a more nu­anced per­spec­tive on the eva­sions and re­pres­sions of main­stream cul­ture. It’s this as­pect of camp both films ig­nore.

A Star Is Born is a much more pro­fi­cient film than Bo­hemian Rhap­sody but in its de­sire to play it so damn safe, it is never stir­ring. Bo­hemian Rhap­sody is a mess


but, in its near re-cre­ation of Queen’s per­for­mance at the Lon­don Live Aid con­cert, Malek takes to the stage and is thrilling. He’s chan­nelling Mer­cury but he’s also re­leas­ing him­self, do­ing what great stage per­form­ers do that makes us adore them – per­suad­ing us of their mas­tery but keep­ing us on edge that they will tran­scend them­selves, that what we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing can­not be re-cre­ated.

Malek’s per­for­mance reveals the lie at the heart of both these films – the no­tion that such aban­don­ment can be do­mes­ti­cated and made safe. In those mo­ments, I knew ex­actly what Mer­cury dis­cov­ered in the back­rooms of the sex clubs in Mu­nich, the in­tox­i­ca­tion of that lib­er­a­tion. And I was re­minded of what is also in­te­gral to the camp aes­thetic, that no­tion of épa­ter la bour­geoisie, the de­fi­ant sneer of the out­sider. The film­mak­ers keep try­ing to tame Fred­die Mer­cury but, thank­fully, be­cause

• of Malek’s per­for­mance, they can’t quite kill the beast.

Rami Malek as Fred­die Mer­cury (above), and (fac­ing page, from left) Joseph Mazzello as John Dea­con, Ben Hardy as Roger Tay­lor, Malek, and Gwilym Lee as Brian May.

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