Queen puts on a great show but ig­nores Fred­die Mer­cury’s iden­tity

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - MOVIES - By Katie Walsh

At the cen­ter of the long-ges­tat­ing Queen biopic “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” is the kind of per­for­mance that’s less act­ing than it is the chan­nel­ing of a spirit from an­other realm. Rami Malek takes to the role of Queen front­man Fred­die Mer­cury with a stu­dious in­ten­sity, mak­ing man­i­fest the duel­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the twin poles of Mer­cury’s per­son­al­ity: his con­fi­dence and his in­se­cu­rity. It’s the cen­trifuge around which the rather un­even film whirls, and Malek keeps it go­ing with his sheer will and ta­lent, aided by a pa­rade of leg­endary Queen hit sin­gles.

Di­rec­tor Bryan Singer’s name ap­pears on a sin­gle ti­tle card dur­ing the open­ing cred­its, thanks to the Di­rec­tor’s Guild, even though he took leave from the film mid-shoot to at­tend to per­sonal mat­ters (fam­ily is­sues and loom­ing #Me­Too ac­cu­sa­tions). Dex­ter Fletcher took over, and at times “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” feels like a film un­moored, search­ing for di­rec­tion.

A mes­mer­iz­ing, beat-for­beat re-cre­ation of Queen’s leg­endary set at Live Aid in 1985 book­ends the film, with breath­tak­ingly tricky cam­er­a­work and an ex­e­cu­tion of Mer­cury’s per­for­mance by Malek that cap­tures ev­ery last ges­ture. Com­pleted at the be­gin­ning of the shoot, one gets a sense of what Singer had in mind — a bright, shiny, al­most car­toon­ishly per­fect ver­sion of Queen and Mer­cury, per­form­ing in per­fect har­mony. The biopic reaches out for the very last row, and in do­ing so, it be­comes un­for­tu­nately ba­sic, flat­ten­ing out the fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter while sand­ing down and re­ar­rang­ing el­e­ments of the story to serve the band. MPAA rat­ing: PG-13 (for the­matic el­e­ments, sug­ges­tive ma­te­rial, drug con­tent and lan­guage) Run­ning time: 2:14

It’s pro­duced by Gra­ham King, who fought for years to bring the story to the screen, push­ing through Singer’s ab­sence, as well as by Queen gui­tarist and drum­mer Brian May and Roger Tay­lor, who pro­vided the mu­sic and sto­ries about the band to writ­ers An­thony McCarten and Peter Mor­gan (as well as the cast). So “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” is less about Mer­cury (who died in 1991), and much more about Queen. The ac­tors who play his band­mates — Gwilym Lee as May, Ben Hardy as Tay­lor and Joe Mazzello as bas­sist John Dea­con — are per­fectly cast, and the best parts of the film are with the band: writ­ing and record­ing mu­sic, play­ing live shows, even the ar­gu­ments.

How­ever, “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” doesn’t know how to grap­ple with the parts of Mer­cury’s life that so greatly in­formed who he was and the mu­sic he made. Ul­ti­mately, there’s no deny­ing the great­est rock god of all time was a queer kid from Zanz­ibar with an over­bite, and that’s pretty re­mark­able. As much as “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” wres­tles with it­self over Mer­cury’s iden­tity, it’s his iden­tity that made him. His ar­ro­gance and self­ag­gran­dize­ment are en­tirely earned, but also clearly his cop­ing mech­a­nisms to deal with his in­se­cu­ri­ties, marginal­iza­tion and the out­right racism that’s tossed his way.

His queer­ness is po­si­tioned not as a rad­i­cal act of per­sonal free­dom and hap­pi­ness, but as his down­fall. He’s shep­herded into a world of drugs by evil gay man­ager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who iso­lates him away from the happy het­eronor­ma­tiv­ity es­poused by his band­mates and for­mer fi­ancee Mary Austin (Lucy Boyn­ton), who as Mer­cury’s life­long friend is his bea­con of moral­ity.

The film al­ways goes back to the band, be­cause it ar­gues Mer­cury wasn’t so much of a mu­si­cal ge­nius with­out them, that it was their col­lab­o­ra­tion that led to the end­less hits. Thanks to the cat­a­log of clas­sics and deep cuts, it’s im­pos­si­ble not to en­joy the plea­sures of “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody.” It’s just hard to shake the feel­ing there’s a far more in­ter­est­ing film about Mer­cury yet to be made.

ALEX BAI­LEY/TWEN­TI­ETH CEN­TURY FOX

Gwilym Lee, from left, Rami Malek and Joe Mazzello play mem­bers of Queen in “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody.”

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