If you think you’ve waited a long time for a Queen biopic, imagine how it feels for Nuno Bettencourt.
The renowned guitarist is an enormous, lifelong Queen fan who has since become friends with the band. He met Freddie Mercury’s mother after the singer’s death. He was invited to the New York premiere of Bohemian Rhapsody, which opens this weekend.
Yet the prospect of watching the film makes him nervous.
“There’s something great about it, and there’s something dirty about it that feels a little strange,” Bettencourt said. “When somebody like Freddie passes away, once you start dipping into their behind-the-scenes stuff, it’s kind of like going through their underwear drawer. You’re just not supposed to. It was never supposed to be that way.”
Rock ’n’ roll is a mythmaking industry, never more so than when the icon in question is no longer with us. Figuring out how to portray a singular figure like Mercury, much less who should portray him, is a prickly issue. It must balance sentiments of reverence and authenticity, concerns of fans, friends, family and the culture at large.
Do it right, and it can mean cinematic immortality — think Jamie Foxx in Ray, Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story or Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It. Do it wrong and, well, when’s the last time you watched Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea? No wonder we’re still waiting on those long-gestating biopics of Janis Joplin and Richard Pryor.
That’s why it has taken the better part of a decade for Bohemian Rhapsody to reach theaters. It’s basically The Freddie Mercury Story, with Queen’s other three members mostly along for the ride. The film does not short-change their contributions to Queen, but makes clear that Mercury’s talent and charisma are beyond imitation.
Sacha Baron Cohen was at one point set to star, then Ben Whishaw. Ultimately — and rightfully — the role fell to Mr. Robot star Rami Malek. Mercury was born to Indian parents in Zanzibar, an archipelago off Africa’s eastern coast; Malek is Egyptian-American.
It’s an intensely physical performance, one that transcends transformative makeup (like Mercury’s famous buck-toothed overbite) to replicate his twitchy, coquettish personality and bravura showmanship, his flamboyant deahs and dahlings. Mercury arrives in the film more or less fully formed, with little explanation of how he got that way; he only arcs upward toward the realm of the diva and enfant terrible.
The film doesn’t dig as deep into Mercury’s lonely life off stage — which, granted, might be how he’d want it. His closeted life is presented as, well, closeted — the film devotes far more time and care to longtime girlfriend Mary Austin than any male relationship or sexual encounter. Even his AIDS diagnosis is dealt with rather stiffly, sans sentiment. It isn’t a total straightwashing, and Mercury never wanted to be a cultural cause celebre in the first place, but if you’re looking for an area where Bohemian Rhapsody glosses over its subject’s human essence, this is it.
While Malek upholds and in some cases enhances the ideal image of Mercury we all have in our memories, he can only do so much. The voice you hear in Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t his, it’s Mercury’s, because how could it be any other way? No one sang like Mercury. Combining his vocals with Malek’s committed showmanship is the closest we can get to approximating the experience of seeing Mercury live.
Still, compare that to another recent biopic, A Star Is Born.(YES, I KNOW IT’S FICTIONAL, BUT YOU CAN’T TELL ME JACK AND ALLY’S LOVE ISN’T REAL.) There, the lens adheres to Lady Gaga like superglue as the audience watches her perform every word live. In Bohemian Rhapsody the camera jumps and cuts too much during concert scenes, interspersing way too many crowd shots, to let you focus on Malek’s performance.
This is a great shame, as the film is never more thrilling than when the songs simply play out live. It’s chilling watching We Will Rock You evolve from inception to Madison Square Garden in less than two minutes. The band’s triumphant 1985 performance at Live Aid plays out almost in real time, offering an appropriately cinematic new POV on that rousing moment in rock history.
Could anyone else have portrayed Mercury like Malek? Put it this way: Queen might have had to wait years for someone better. They already did, before Malek came along. And who wins in that scenario? Certainly not the band, who are now all around 70, and running out of time to get this thing done. Nor the crowds who have long turned out in droves for stage musicals and reunion tours. This is a populist biopic made for mass appeal; it’s funny and pleasant and safe for Mom and Dad. Like Queen’s music, it puts the fans first.
And that is why Nuno Bettencourt would rather see Bohemian Rhapsody in a normal theater, far from the glitz of a red carpet. At the end of the day, he’s just another one of those fans, hoping a film years in the making managed to do right by his idols.
“They’re all living up to what Freddie would have wanted, and that’s probably hard for them to know, but at least they’re going to get it as close as they can,” he said. “I just want to go see the Queen movie on my own, just sitting there, and be that kid in the bedroom that was learning all of Queen II and go, ‘Here it is.’ ”
Against long odds, Bohemian Rhapsody actually exists. Freddie Mercury will take a bow once more. Crazy little thing, isn’t it?
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.