Clarisse Loughrey of this parish called the film “a karaoke-style paean” in a two-star review. Owen Gleiberman of Variety called it “middle-of-the-road”, IndieWire‘s David Ehrlich found it “royally embarrassing” while Jasper Rees of The Spectator denounced Bohemian Rhapsody’s “succession of predigested cliches”.
But none of that stopped the film from proving to be a huge commercial hit with audiences, earning $744m (£583m) at the worldwide box office, surpassing the record gross for a musical biopic set by Straight Outta Compton in 2015.
At this month’s Golden Globes, it surprised many by winning Best Picture and Best Actor for Malek in the drama categories. It has since been nominated for seven Baftas and appears to have picked up some significant momentum with the Oscars just weeks away.
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Like Michael Gracey’s PT Barnum musical The Greatest Showman (2017), the film has exposed a sharp divide between professional critics and the movie-going public.
That film was likewise derided by reviewers but proved a runaway success in theatres, many of which revived it after its original run for sing-along screenings, while the soundtrack has broken download records. A Broadway stage version is in development and star Hugh Jackman has announced plans to undertake a worldwide arena tour to perform its songs live.
For critics judging Bohemian Rhapsody in pure film-making terms, the central gripe is its extremely formulaic handling of its story – the fault of Anthony McCarten’s screenplay.
We are presented with a showbiz morality tale in which the initial euphoria of success is spoiled by excessive partying, creative disagreements and malicious outside influences before the group reunite to triumph at Wembley with their legendary Live Aid set.
The journey is marked along the way with a number of eureka moments in the studio, explaining how the band came to write “Another One Bites the Dust” and other greatest hits, a cliche of the genre established by films like James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005).
Social media users have raised more serious concerns about Bohemian Rhapsody's downplaying of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s - Mercury was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and died of AIDS-related bronchopneumonia in 1991 - and its treatment of the star's sexuality.
They argue Bohemian Rhapsody places too much emphasis on Freddie's relationship with Mary Austin (played in the film by Lucy Boynton) at the expense of that with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), accusing the project of “straight-washing” or “de-queering” its subject so as not to alienate straight audiences.
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Hollywood music biopics, from Bohemian Rhapsody to Walk the Line
Malek hardly helped matters by fumbling his answer in an interview with LGBT+ news site INTO when questioned about whether or not he considered Mercury a gay icon.
“I think if he’s an icon there’s no reason that it requires another adjective, as far as I see”, he said.
While Mercury certainly had relationships with men and is rightly hailed as a hero for bringing LGBT+ culture to the mainstream – notably his “clone” aesthetic of short hair, bristling moustache, vest and denim jeans - Malek is right to say the singer resisted labels in his own lifetime and never publicly came out or aligned himself with gay rights causes.
Asked bluntly by Julie Webb of the NME whether he was “bent” in December 1974, Freddie answered evasively: “You're a crafty cow. Let’s put it this way: there were times when I was young and green. It’s a thing schoolboys go through. I’ve had my share of schoolboy pranks. I’m not going to elaborate further.”
Even if he preferred not to humour the prurience of the press and state explicitly whether he was gay or bisexual, Mercury certainly relished provoking society’s heteronormative expectations, as the famous video for 1984’s “I Want to Break Free” attests: Freddie and bandmates Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor appearing in John Waters-inspired drag to send up suburban Middle England.
The truth about the exact nature of his sexuality is further complicated by the fact that he wrote the song “Love of My Life” from A Night at the Opera (1975) for Mary Austin and left the vast majority of his estate to her upon his death.
Bohemian Rhapsody is therefore not wrong to stress the importance of her friendship with the late star. She still lives in the Kensington townhouse he left to her to this day.
Another reason for the backlash against the film is director Bryan Singer’s name on the credits.
Best known for The Usual Suspects (1995) and the X-Men superhero franchise, Singer has been the subject of sexual assault allegations, making him an unpopular appointment to the project at any time, let alone in the #MeToo era.
He left Bohemian Rhapsody before completing the film because of a family health matter (although it was rumoured he had fallen out with the cast) and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher.Support free-thinking journalism and subscribe to Independent Minds
Singer nevertheless appeared to take credit for the film’s recent Globes success on Instagram, posting a picture of himself on set and thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press.
Whatever the film’s faults – and there are many – Bohemian Rhapsody is a hit and succeeds in its central aim of reminding us what an exceptional and joyous personality Freddie Mercury was and how much fun and vitality Queen brought to the dreary Britain of the 1970s.