Rami Malek’s Freddie is no little silhouetto of the man
24 October 2018 17:18
Punk-folk singer Frank Turner once declared in his ‘Eulogy’: ‘Not everyone can be Freddie Mercury.’ True enough, but Rami Malek’s performance in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer, 2018) comes pretty damn close.
Musical biopics tend to expose the pitfalls of portraying cultural legends. Indeed, an icon like Lady Gaga playing a nobody in A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018) will always work better than a nobody like Malek playing an icon. Mercury is, after all, a performer so immortalised that an asteroid was named after him.
But Malek joins the likes of Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, (La Vie en Rose, Olivier Dahan, 2007), Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles (Ray, Taylor Hackford, 2004), Michael Douglas as Liberace (Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh, 2013) and Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash (Walk the Line, James Mangold, 2005) in taking on the gargantuan task of portraying a larger-than-life musical icon – and achieving greatness. The impact is all the more impressive considering that, like Cotillard as the Little Sparrow, Malek didn’t even perform all of the music in the film – most was taken from Mercury’s real recordings and interspersed with performer Marc Martel, well known for his vocal resemblance.
Malek acknowledged the ‘immense burden’ of taking on a character so revolutionary, saying ‘I just have to capture an essence of him’. But, of course, what sets Freddie Mercury apart is that his essence is more biopic-worthy than most. The film doesn’t try to be a documentary of his life (or untimely death, from AIDs-related complications in 1991) – which, naturally, will do absolutely nothing to deter criticisms of inaccuracy – but focuses on Queen’s meteoric rise in the early 1970s, their break-up, and then their reunion for the 1985 Live Aid concert and Mercury’s unforgettable sustained accappella ‘note heard around the world’.
This is no typical biopic of a young awkward prodigy and his rise to stardom, being polished into a performer. When we meet Freddie, he’s already got it, licking his lips with confidence and putting himself forward as a new lead singer for the band with another acappella proclamation, all sleazy ‘darlings’ and camp flourishes. The film commendably avoids the extensive backstory of Farrokh Bulsara (Mercury’s birth name), or his childhood in Zanzibar with his Parsi parents and Zoroastrian religion. A brief scene with Freddie’s family introducing them to his girlfriend and bandmates reveals that none of his new friends even knew his real name. He drowns out the sounds of his loved ones sharing stories of his life by singing happy birthday, ‘Mr Mercury’, to himself in the mirror. ‘It’s just a stage name,’ his mother consoles his father. ‘No it’s not,’ he replies, ‘I changed it legally.’ Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Malek doesn’t do the singing – Farrokh may have had the amazing voice, but Freddie Mercury was the creation.
The pitfall of portraying icons is contending with the rabid fans and their vicious over-protectiveness of their hero. In this case, the fandango kicked off before the film was even out. After the teaser trailer was released in May, there was a vocal backlash against the alleged ‘straight-washing’ of the bisexual Mercury. Bryan Fuller, creator of Pushing Daisies, tweeted: ‘Anyone else mildly annoyed that the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ trailer features gay/bi superstar Freddie Mercury flirting with and twirling with a woman but no indication of his love of men?’ Apparently, they were.
Lucy Boynton, who plays Mercury’s fiancée and lifelong friend, Mary Austin, was more annoyed by the response, telling Digital Spy that people ‘want to have something to criticise’. The channel 5 docu-drama The Freddie Mercury Story: Who Wants to Live Forever (2016), was conversely criticised for focusing too much on his sexuality.
But any claims of queer erasure have surely been put to bed. The most powerful scene of the film sees him confess his bisexuality to Mary. ‘Freddie, you’re gay. I’ve known for a while now,’ she replies. Tearfully, she asks him what he wants from her, and he replies: ‘Almost everything.’ Later, when his personal manager Paul Prenter (played with quiet menace by Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech) first tries to kiss him, he says: ‘Mary knows me in a way that no one else ever will.’
Freddie is certainly portrayed as less of sexual being than a gay man whose love of his life happens to be a woman. Although he refuses to be pigeonholed by intrusive press regarding his sexuality – ‘I’m just a musical prostitute, my dear’ – it’s clear what’s missing. Lingering looks at a trucker in a car park while he’s on the phone to her, to his ‘gayer’ style (in the words of Mary) and the more familiar moustache, culminate in a touchingly quiet coming out scene to his parents, and something of a happy ending with Jim Hutton, who was Mercury’s partner until the time of his death.
There were also fears that the film would gloss over Mercury’s drug-fuelled debauchery, which were clearly far-fetched. His high state is often directly referred to, as are his ‘wild, drug-fuelled parties’. He’s seen to spiral into gaunt, grey-faced paranoia after leaving the band, in the tabloids partying with multiple sexual partners, and finding solace in the sweat of leather clubs and the emptiness of unknown bodies. You never see a needle go into an arm, but the film is rated 12a, and what you lose in graphic content, you gain in showing a whole new generation glimpses of the Ethiopian famine, the AIDs epidemic and the glam-rock era.
The challenges of trying to make a biopic of an icon’s life are obvious – so what is the purpose? How can a film portrayal of Freddie Mercury, perfectly preserved and rose-tinted by his untimely death, possibly live up to the expectations of fans and the demands of family? A director who tries to make an infallibly accurate documentary of an entire life is inevitably doomed to failure. This tension is encapsulated in the lyrics of the eponymous hit: ‘We will not let you go / Let him go!’ Should we let Freddie go? Certainly, there have been enough docu-dramas, tributes and performances of the Ben Elton music We Will Rock You (2002) to ensure that the performer is never forgotten.
The film is far from perfect. It’s tonally inconsistent, sentimental and, at times, mawkish – but so was the music of Queen, and that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. It will invariably be criticised for predictability, a lack of emotional punch, and a family-friendly veneer on a tumultuously lived life.
But the triumph and tragedy of a life like Mercury’s is eternal cinema fodder. The Live Aid performance provides a bona fide peak to the film, which is no manufactured cinematic crescendo. And the Queen phenomenon is no heritage pop or product of its time which the biopic merely freezes in its cultural aspect. If anything, the popularity of Queen’s songs endures more than most bands of the era, with an instantly recognisable ‘stomp, stomp, clap’ echoing around karaoke bars and football stadiums.
What this film does shine a light on is the enduring appeal of the glam rock: the knowing wit, the exaggerated drama and the defiant glitz of it all. I’ll be damned if this film doesn’t send millennials straight to Spotify, the middle-aged to their vinyl collections, and everybody to YouTube for footage of that Live Aid concert, to revisit the magic of Queen. It’s music that simply doesn’t go out of fashion – it’s camp, it’s cool, but above all it’s catchy.
The film captures this with the final performance of ‘We Are The Champions’, in which Freddie sings as much with the audience as he does with the band. If you didn’t get it before, you do now: Queen was about so more than just the flamboyant creation that was Freddie Mercury. It was, as the film’s repeated line states, ‘a family’, one that the audience was always part of. As Freddie says in the film, they were ‘four misfits who don’t belong together playing for other misfits … we belong to them’. Like the real-life concert in 1985, this film will surely win a whole new generation of misfits and champions.
The challenge of portraying such an icon simply doesn’t faze the relatively inexperienced Malek, even under the shadow of the more acclaimed Baron Cohen, who was set to play Mercury and who Brian May believed was born to play the role. He perfectly embodies the character’s emotional range, if not his vocal one: haughty and jealous in a silk kimono one moment, achingly vulnerable in jeans the next. No little silhouetto of the man, his Freddie is at times manic, even overdone – because that’s exactly how Mercury would have performed it. But where he truly shines is in Freddie’s quieter moments, his loneliness and increasingly desperate search for somebody to love. He navigates Freddie’s character arc from hopeful cockiness, to gaunt debauchery, to reconciled and repentant with masterful control. If the music of Queen belongs to the audience, the film belongs to Malek.