Contrived. Superficial. Indulgent. Tediously long. These are just some of the adjectives used to describe Bohemian Rhapsody – the song, released by legendary rock group Queen in 1975. The track, released as a single for the band’s fourth studio album A Night At The Opera, left critics unfulfilled as there was no intended point of the work. No greater subtext to gleam. Queen, at least with this track, were only interested in providing a good time for their audience. A song made simply for the fun of it and not to be analyzed ad nauseam? The audacity!
Which brings us to Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the Bryan Singer directed biopic of Queen. Although it is more specifically a bio of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, here played by Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek. The film begins with Mercury attending the performance of local UK band Smile. After the show, Mercury meets up with the band’s guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). After showing off his vocal range, Mercury offers to be the lead singer of the band in the aftermath of Smile’s previous lead singer dumping the group for greener pastures.
What follows is the intricate, detailed rise of a famous band – just played in fast forward. Before you can get halfway down a bag of popcorn, the group has added bassist John Deacon (a criminally underutilized Joseph Mazzello), signed a record deal, completed an album, become sensations in the UK, topped the charts with Bohemian Rhapsody, and toured America with blistering success. The film is clearly not interested in examining Queen itself. If you’re here to learn what Queen’s early sound was like, or what adversity they had to face in order to reach fame, you’ll be greatly disappointed. That is because the film is in a hurry to focus on Mercury, his sexuality, and his demons. Not that the venture is fruitless, as Malek’s impersonation of Mercury will go down as one of the best portrayals in a biopic.
Malek is the show stealer, and the biggest reason to see the film other than the soundtrack itself. Much has been made about Sasha Baron Cohen’s proposed film, which would have seen the comedian star as Mercury before he exited the project due to creative differences. Cohen bears an uncanny resemblance to the late singer, but Malek is more than a suitable replacement, embodying the charismatic confidence and peculiar idiosyncrasies that made Freddie Mercury a magnetic performer. The screen presence is impeccable, and the audience hangs on every word as Malek truly feels like a flesh and blood person, rather than an actor.
Unfortunately, for a movie about Queen, there is not much to learn about the rest of Queen other than its legendary front man. The rest of Queen are regulated to side dishes, glorified decorations to the core narrative of the story. Lee and Mazzello bring a wit and warmth to their roles that successfully contrast Hardy’s lovable hot head Roger Taylor. At one point, Taylor throws a tantrum in the kitchen, throwing objects at his band mates to their bemusement. They feel like a true family of outcasts, and more attention should have been paid to their story and background. What little we get is the mention of May being an astrophysics major, and Freddie hinting at Roger’s skeletons. But all we get is surface level details about the other members and their families. This is Freddie’s show.
As Queen’s fame and success increases, Freddie is weighed down by personal desires and loneliness. His discovery of his bisexuality puts an end to his marriage to Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), yet he continues to proclaim her the love of his life. We see him go from lover to lover, while maintaining a sexual relationship with his manager Paul Prenter. Prenter’s influence splinters the group, leading Freddie to ditch the guys for a solo career. But ultimately, Freddie must decide to own up to who he really is, instead of hiding his loneliness and inner struggles to the people who matter most to him.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a very flawed film. There are egregious changes to the actual timeline to adhere to a narrative that climaxes with Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid (and I greatly hope, with a film focused on Elton John headed for theaters next year, we’re not headed for a Live Aid Cinematic Universe). Several characters are underdeveloped, and the film too closely follows the music bio formula. But where it succeeds is the great cast, including an enjoyable cameo from Mike Myers as a fictional music exec. The soundtrack, it goes without saying, is phenomenal, but the musical set pieces are electric; you feel enveloped by not just the sound, but the sights. This all builds up to the Live Aid climax, which may be the best filmed scene of its kind that we’ve ever had.
No, the film does not offer many new details, nor do we get a heavy deep dive into Mercury’s sexuality. There’s a scene in the film where an intoxicated Mercury is hounded by the press, as they grill him for answers about his private life. But its private for a reason. Mercury wanted his personal life to maintain some dignity, and that wouldn’t be accomplished with the expose that Sasha Baron Cohen wanted to make, or that some audiences apparently wanted. Sometimes it’s enough to just give the audience a good time.