Many cinephiles ignore the Golden Globes during awards season, instead looking to the Oscars as the definitive annual marker of movie excellence. But sometimes the Globes can provide crucial—if unpleasant—evidence of just how much the industry is willing to pander to audiences if the results include trophies and high box office returns. Last night’s crowning of the Queen quasi-biopic Bohemian Rhapsody as Best Motion Picture – Drama over its much more worthy and complex competitors If Beale Street Could Talk, Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman and A Star Is Born exposes the inner maxim upheld by innumerable studio execs, screenwriters and filmgoers alike: Simpler is better.
Which is not to say that Bohemian Rhapsody is a totally uncomplicated film, or that it is entirely devoid of pleasurable moments. For example, one funny scene shows the members of Queen huddled around as they debate whether the song “I’m in Love With My Car” is good enough to land a spot on their fourth album, 1975’s A Night at the Opera. The catch, however, is that “I’m in Love With My Car” is the only track on the record that was written entirely by drummer Roger Taylor, and this part of the film seems to bend over backwards to give a member of Queen other than singer Freddie Mercury a moment in the spotlight. Its true intention, it seems, is to posit, somewhat whiningly, that not all of the band’s greatest work came from its frontman.
Fine, so throw Taylor a bone. But the bigger problem with Bohemian Rhapsody is that the contradictions that served as a big part of the group’s legacy and existed within Mercury—played by Rami Malek, who also took home a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama—have been flattened to appeal to a broader demographic. And these aren’t superficial alterations. The movie’s most glaring flaw is that it literally revises history. In the film, Mercury tells the rest of Queen that he has contracted HIV while they’re rehearsing for their gig at the historic 1985 Live Aid concert (made to raise funds to combat famine in Ethiopia), which is often touted as the greatest rock-and-roll performance of all time. In fact, Mercury wasn’t diagnosed until 1987. Thus, the movie repurposes the disease that eventually killed the singer as a convenient and manipulative narrative turnkey that provides Mercury with the motivation he needs to put on the show of a lifetime.
Furthermore, the film never truly captures the extent of Mercury’s singular genius. Instead, we get a compilation of scenes that cheaply accentuate his otherness. When Bohemian Rhapsody begins, Mercury, who was born Farrokh Bulsara into an Indian-British Parsi family, is called a “Paki” while working a shift at Heathrow Airport. Minutes later, Mercury, who in real life spent several years living with his male lover (a man named Jim Hutton, who is reduced in the movie to a calming solution to Mercury’s hard-partying mania), meets a woman. “I love your style. I think we should all take more risks,” Mercury’s eventual partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) says blandly upon encountering him for the first time.
“Paki” is a slur and “I love your style” is a compliment, but the underlying meanings are the same: “You’re outside the norm.” Director Bryan Singer, who receives sole credit for the film even though who was fired from it in 2017 after apparently sparring with Malek and neglecting to show up on set consistently, seems to have structured Bohemian Rhapsody around that single, lazy sentiment without bothering to explore what it really means.
To make a movie honoring Mercury’s memory, you’d have to reckon with the difficult truth about his tragic, premature death while also being unafraid to show how he got there. Bohemian Rhapsody is packed with enjoyable vignettes depicting the songwriting process and some rafter-shaking concert scenes, but it never reaches high enough to illuminate the complicated reality of Mercury’s queerness.
Voters’ decision to give this movie the most coveted award of the night is a real head-scratcher—The Atlantic points out that if you’re going by the review aggregator Metacritic, it may very well be the worst-reviewed Best Drama Globe winner in recorded history. Ironically, though, Bohemian Rhapsody‘s failure to accurately tell Mercury’s story might have been a factor that helped it clinch at least one of its Golden Globes. Malek did his best with the material he was given, and movie awards voters love it when actors deliver performances that transcend their difficult circumstances. Leonardo DiCaprio famously won his long-overdue Oscar only after fighting a bear. Malek could win his for triumphing over a bad script.