By: Steve Pulaski
It's impossible to detail the story of Queen's meteoric rise and unthinkable success without making a huge chunk of that story about the band's enigmatic frontman Freddie Mercury. One cannot fault Bryan Singer and writer Anthony McCarten (who wrote The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, both scripts going on to be nominated for Oscars) for amalgamating both stories into one lengthy biopic because just like it's difficult to talk about Queen without highlighting Mercury's tremendous talent, it's tough to assess the specifics and the appeal of the band by minimizing Mercury's role. However, when it comes to Bohemian Rhapsody, both Singer and McCarten do Mercury and Queen fans a ghastly disservice by painting the legend in broad-strokes while contextualizing him and his unlikely story with as generic of a biopic as they come. It's a sad day when I use these familiar words to describe a project about Queen: nothing really matters.
Mercury is played by Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) in a chameleon-like performance that's as Oscar-worthy as any acclaimed role this year. Malek captures the voice, mannerisms, and physicality of Mercury as well as I believe anybody could. He does more than portray Mercury; he embodies the flamboyance and seismic gravity of such a powerhouse talent.
The film hits the ground running by showing Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara) at a nightclub in 1970, where he catches a band called Smile performing their act. Mere minutes after their lead singer quits, Mercury innocuously finds fellow mates Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) sitting on a couch, twiddling their thumbs; a brief conversation later and he's their new frontman. Ten minutes later, they're recording an album. Five minutes after that, he's engaged to his girlfriend (Lucy Boynton), whom he apparently met at the nightclub the same evening and who is barely a footnote of a character throughout much of the film. Not long after, he's convincing a pissy record exec (played by comedian Mike Myers in a cheeky role that has him referencing that famous scene in Wayne's World all too cutely) that "Bohemian Rhapsody" will be a hit despite being unconventionally long for a radio single. Of course the big-shot says the song will never be a chart-topper and kids won't connect with it at all. Ho ho.
Yes, Bohemian Rhapsody is one of those biopics. A film keenly aware of the impossible achievements of its subjects insofar that it insists on reminding us of that fact by way of corny caricatures that tell those same individuals that success for them is "never going to happen" and that they're "wasting their time." If Singer and McCarten aren't wasting their time nudging us in our sides and practically whispering, "Huh? Huh?" in our ears, they're piling on significant moments in the lives of Mercury and Queen as a unit that are explored with none of the depth and complexity they require.
From turning Mercury's Parsi parents into the usual rigid parental units to his female love-interest into what amounts to nothing but a sniffling victim of his homosexuality, Bohemian Rhapsody is an authorized, manufactured drama that undermines the same man with whom it's so taken. A PG-13 film chronicling the life, illness, and death of Mercury is already a head-scratcher, and what we ultimately get is a sanitized look at a famously gay man's complicated battle with stardom (summarized mainly by brief tabloid clippings and a Queen press conference made hasty and vulgar by Mercury). It's not that Bohemian Rhapsody downplay Mercury's homosexuality but awkwardly tip-toe around the details that bothers me. Can you fathom making a movie about Michael Jackson and neglecting to show the power of his moves and his stage-performances. Can you imagine an apolitical John Lennon biopic? Would you have bothered with Walk the Line if it undercut the gritty and troubled side of Johnny Cash? By shortchanging Mercury's sexuality as a device to subtly shame the late rockstar and his struggle with AIDS as a fleeting, minute part of his legacy, Bohemian Rhapsody is a disappointingly puritanical look at someone who deserves far better than what the filmmakers were willing to give him.
As the film more-or-less fails as a credible account of events — chronological errors are abound, including the incorrect positing of the band's iconic performance at Live Aid in 1985 as the point of reunion for Mercury and Queen — you might ask, is it entertaining? I'd say on some superficial level, yes. It's a thrill to experience some of Queen's biggest jams and see them break sonic barriers on the big-screen. The sequence of events that shows the making of "We Will Rock You" is good fun, and I'll rarely complain about hearing "Fat Bottomed Girls" or the titular track at any point. The beauty of Queen's music is how remarkably different it sounds in given contexts. Listening to "We Will Rock You" on commercial radio, for example, doesn't do it for me. Listening to the anthemic rock and roll staple while at a bar with some buddies when the room is into it? That's the situation for which Queen's music was made. Hearing their timeless music and seeing the band spring to life on-screen is good, if frivolous, entertainment.
Still, I'd argue the entertainment factor of Bohemian Rhapsody should be second to the exposition. You too should expect nothing less from a long-in-the-works drama about such a pivotal group. Yet Singer and McCarten fall gravely short in making a film that, when all is said and done, save for a few aforementioned highlights, could've really been about any old rock band: the Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, you name 'em. At the end of the day, it's one big, deafening stage-show with the same group-hugs, orgies, bitter fallouts, catastrophic marriages, and crashing fall. Queen deserved not only better, but bigger.