On paper, Bohemian Rhapsody is golden. Grossing more than $800 worldwide, Bohemian Rhapsody is now the highest grossing music biopic ever made. The movie has also been showered with award show love. Rami Malek, who’s drawn acclaim for embodying Freddie Mercury, teeth and all, walked any with the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama. The Golden Globes culminated with Bohemian Rhapsody winning Best Motion Picture — Drama in a celebration that channelled the energy of Live Aid. So far, Bohemian Rhapsody has racked up over 50 nominations across awards show season, including Academy Award nods for Best Picture and Best Lead Actor.
So why aren’t people celebrating? And why, when Eighth Grade star Elsie Fisher tweeted her excitement over Bohemian Rhapsody's Golden Globe win, was she swarmed by Twitter anger? Since its release, Bohemian Rhapsody has been clouded by controversy for a number of reasons, like other awards show front-runner Green Book. Briefly put, Green Book has been criticized for being yet another movie about a Black individual told by white people (and focusing on a white man) that shoots to awards shot glory, not to mention problematic tweets by the screenwriter. Bohemian Rhapsody’s controversy is of another sort entirely. Let’s unpack Bohemian Rhapsody detractors' reasoning here.
Controversy One: Simply put, critics didn’t like Bohemian Rhapsody.
Looking at box office statistics, audiences clearly flocked to get a glimpse of Queen’s past glory in droves. But movie goers must have ignored the reviews — because the reviews of Bohemian Rhapsody were far from glowing. Bohemian Rhapsody is clinging onto its “fresh” status on Rotten Tomatoes a mere three percentage points, and now holds the accolade of being the movie with the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score to win Best Picture at the Golden Globes this century.
Critics agreed that Malek’s turn as Freddie Mercury was extraordinary. But they were disappointed by the movie's rose-tinted storytelling that ultimately glossed over the nuance in Mercury's story. “Bohemian Rhapsody is bad in the way a lot of biopics are bad: it's superficial, it avoids complexity, and the narrative has a connect-the-dots quality,” Sheila O’Malley of RogerEbert.com writes, giving the movie a 1 out of 4 review. Rafer Guzman of Newsday compared the movie to the satirical biopic Walk Hard: “By rights, this ought to be a glammed-up, sexually-charged, four-octave blowout. Instead, it's a stilted, stagy, hopelessly corny biopic, the kind of thing Walk Hard was meant to prevent." Bohemian Rhapsody was a Queen movie without any of Queen's edgy excitement.
This dissonance between critical feedback and awards show love is unusual. Typically, awards show darlings are also critical darlings. For context, The Shape of Water, which won Best Picture at the academy Awards in 2018, had a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; Bohemian Rhapsody hovers at 62%. However, bad reviews don't automatically exclude a picture from the running: Vice, which was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture this year, also garnered some similarly biting reviews.
Controversy Two: Bryan Singer directed Bohemian Rhapsody, and Bryan Singer has been cancelled.
On the surface, the acceptance speech for Bohemian Rhapsody’s win at the Golden Globes seemed quite standard. But those in the know picked up on the speech's one glaring omission: No one thanked the original director. Bryan Singer’s association with Bohemian Rhapsody adds further controversy to an already problematic film.
Bohemian Rhapsody had a notoriously tumultuous path to production, going through multiple directors and stars (including Sacha Baron Cohen) before settling on the Bryan Singer-Rami Malek combination. The actual making of Bohemian Rhapsody was equally dramatic. Two weeks before production wrapped in December 2017, Singer was fired for inappropriate behaviour. Allegedly, Singer threw a piece of electrical equipment on set and also fought with Malek (Singer denied any conflict with his star, citing creative differences that had been resolved). Dexter Fletcher was brought in to finish up the film, but Singer is credited as the director — in fact, he was just nominated for a BAFTA.
The saga continued. Three days after being fired by 20th Century Fox, Cesar Sanchez-Guzman accused Singer of sexually assaulting him at a yacht party in 2003, when he was 17 years old (Singer denies the allegations). Singer's career has since been affected by this accusation. Following the allegations, Singer was dropped as a producer on Legion. However, he may be on his way to helming another film. Bohemian Rhapsody bears the stains of a #MeToo-era allegation.
How can fans of the film reconcile Singer's involvement? Malek has advice. "I think they can understand that Bryan Singer was fired from the film. And that can be something that they can look at from a perspective of understanding why they can appreciate the film. And as far as I’m concerned, I never want to take away from Freddie’s story. I think that puts a button on it in a number of ways," Malek told the L.A. Times.
Controversy Three: Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t get Freddie Mercury’s sexuality right.
Bohemian Rhapsody is about Queen, yes, but it's also about the state of Freddie Mercury's heart. By all accounts, Freddie Mercury’s life was marked by two major relationships. First, his nine-year relationship with his fiancée, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), whom he met at a department store (not backstage at a show, as Bohemian Rhapsody suggests). Then, his relationship with hairdresser Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), which lasted until Mercury died of bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS in 1991. The movie makes it appear like Mercury suddenly flipped a sexuality switch. One minute, he was cuddling and intimate with Austin; then, he was with Hutton.
In reality, Mercury was sleeping with men while he was with Austin. In fact, at the time of his writing "Bohemian Rhapsody" (the song), Mercury was having his first affair with a man. The authors of Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury suggest "Bohemian Rhapsody" was actually a coming out song. The film, however, does not touch on Mercury's affair with David Minns. Instead, Malek's Mercury goes into a charming and eccentric fugue state, and "Bohemian Rhapsody" emerges from his head fully formed.
The movie eliminates the reality of Mercury's sexually fluid nature — just like Queen's management once did to preserve the band's image in an era when a queer frontman would've meant doom. “Queen’s management spent decades trying to convince the world that Freddie was heterosexual while he was alive, but then conceded to his homosexuality after he had died,” Mercury biographer Lesley-Ann Jones told Them. “All their efforts to preserve Freddie in memory as, effectively, a straight man who was in love with one woman — his soulmate Mary — but who was ‘corrupted’ by factions of the music industry (and wasn’t really gay) are ridiculous to me...He was clearly bisexual.”
Instead of exploring the nuances of Mercury's sexuality, Bohemian Rhapsody sets up a binary that equated Mercury's queerness with transgression. Even Malek agrees with the criticism that Bohemian Rhapsody underplays Mercury's sexuality, and eclipses his relationship with Hutton by glorifying Austin.
"Believe me: There were conversations left and right about how to incorporate more of that story into this film. It was something I pushed for, to be quite honest, as much as possible, and repeatedly brought to the attention of producers and directors and everyone who would listen. If it were me, I would've loved to have incorporated more," Malek told USA Today.
If Bohemian Rhapsody had Hutton and Mercury's first meeting play out as it did in real life, Mercury — who was dating two other men at the time — would've approached Hutton at the Copacabana in 1985 and asked, “How big’s your dick?” Instead, in the movie, Hutton rejects Mercury for not being comfortable with himself. "Call me when you find yourself,” Hutton says, as he walks away.
But the real Mercury knew who he was, even if he kept aspects of his life shrouded from the public eye. Ultimately, by not "getting" Freddie Mercury — in all his shameless, iconic queerness – this Mercury biopic doesn't "get" its own subject.