While Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury has been praised, the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody opened to tepid reviews. The long-awaited biopic of the British rock band Queen has seen its fair share of troubles long before the final cut was locked. Originally, the film was set to star Sacha Baron Cohen in the lead role as Freddie Mercury, a role he extensively prepared for before unexpectedly dropping out. He later told Howard Stern that he left the film due to creative differences with the surviving members of the band who wanted the film to tone down the more scandalous elements of Mercury’s life. Eventually, Dexter Fletcher signed on as director in late 2013 but also dropped out amid reports of creative disagreements with producer Graham King. Ben Whishaw was briefly attached for the Mercury role but that never came to fruition. Eventually, in early 2017, the project was put into production with Bryan Singer directing and Emmy winning star of Mr. Robot Rami Malek in the lead role.
But the drama didn't stop there. In December 2017, filming was briefly halted due to what was reported as the "unexpected unavailability" of Bryan Singer. Sources claimed the director simply hadn't turned up on set after Thanksgiving week, and that the cast and crew had grown tired of his behavior. This was not the first time Singer was reported to have been late or missing to sets he was working on, and on December 4, Singer was officially fired, with Fletcher brought in to finish the film. Singer has claimed his absence was due to a personal health matter, although it escaped nobody that he went incognito during the rise of the #MeToo movement; Singer has been mired in accusations of sexual harassment and assault, including more than one lawsuit, for close to two decades. Earlier this month, he took to Instagram to pre-emptively refute an upcoming article from Esquire which will allegedly discuss these allegations further.
Despite the controversy, due to rules put forth by the Directors Guild of America that mean only one director can be credited for a film, Singer will still receive the sole directorial credit for Bohemian Rhapsody.
A good film can get away with behind-the-scenes drama, but it’s been tough to avoid the elephant in the room for Bohemian Rhapsody in its responses by the critics. The early responses so far have been mixed. The film currently has a 57% score on Rotten Tomatoes and a rating of 49 on Metacritic. While almost everyone agrees on the strength of Rami Malek’s performance, many of the negative reviews note the film’s staid conventional structure, its formulaic approach to the characters, and its disappointing take on Mercury’s sexuality and lifestyle.
If not for Rami Malek’s feral posturing as one of rock history’s greatest frontmen, a deep roster of killer songs, and the long shadow of his band’s iconic 1985 performance at Live Aid, this movie could effectively be about any musicians, at any time, rolling through any part of the United States. From the disapproving parents, to the drug-fueled orgies, to the unbelievable scene when a young Freddie Mercury (née Farrokh Bulsara) introduces himself to Brian May and Roger Taylor mere seconds after the two bandmates have been abandoned by their original lead singer, it’s an out-of-body experience to watch such a paint-by-numbers portrait in a post-“Walk Hard” world. If there’s anything more tiresome than the movies that inspired the Dewey Cox story, it’s a movie that uses Jake Kasdan’s damning parody as a template. Even when it’s funny, “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t in on the joke — it’s too busy burnishing its own myth.
Like trying to hit that famed high B flat on “Galileo” without a warm-up, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is embarrassingly unprepared to cover the life of its subject — Freddie Mercury. This jumbled take on the legend is squawky, sexless, and shallow, assaulting the senses as it offers little insight or real depth into Mercury or the band he fronted [...] But what’s most astonishing about this version of Mercury’s life is that it’s so utterly sexless. Malek does his best, but the material gets only a PG-13 rating for “suggestive material,” among other things, when there’s no reason to be so tame. This isn’t a biopic about Lyndon B. Johnson. Sex and sexiness were so intertwined with Mercury’s public persona that making a film this entirely lacking in anything more than the hint of lust can only be seen as intentional.
Distracting technical flourishes such as blurry cameras and quick zooms take away from any potential resonance of the acting, and even Malek’s best attempts at emulating Mercury during the performance scenes fall flat due to cheap CGI crowds and awkward quick cuts which take away from the magnetism he’s trying to create in his wide-eyed showmanship. It doesn’t feel like the work of a seasoned director (or two of them, in fact) but rather a garish, gushing student project that’s got wildly out of hand. It’s nowhere near as interesting or absorbing as its central figure, and in glossing over the elements of Mercury’s identity and life which are so vital and important to many – his race, sexuality, and the fact he was the first major cultural figure to die of AIDS – Bohemian Rhapsody leaves a sour taste. This is a revisionist attempt at painting Mercury in primary colours suitable for audiences who’d rather just bop along to the Greatest Hits than think about the man who shared his gift with the world until it killed him, and Freddie deserves so much more.
The best part of the movie is — shocker — hearing Queen’s timeless songs. They’re best showcased during a fabulous re-creation of the 1985 Live Aid concert, which was watched by 1.9 billion people worldwide. [...] What we ultimately wanted from “Bohemian Rhapsody” was not carbon-copied concerts, but behind-closed-doors insight into a deeply private, complicated, internationally beloved superstar.
Bohemian Rhapsody feels like dirty pool. Either one of the next two things are true: Either the surviving members of Queen still resent the fact that so much of their legacy is wrapped up in Freddie Mercury that they had to make this revisionist history of a movie, or the surviving members are so cinematically tone deaf they inadvertently made a movie that sure comes off like that’s what they were trying to do. [...] I have no idea if it was malicious – probably, consciously, it wasn’t – but regardless, this is the end result: to punish Freddie Mercury 27 years after his death. And, without the surviving band member’s permission, this movie couldn’t use Queen’s music. In hindsight, it would be better if this movie didn’t exist at all.
Not all the reviews were bad, though. Some found much to enjoy in Bohemian Rhapsody.
An object example of how a film can be entertaining and even exhilarating without being particularly good, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has the driving energy of a stadium anthem and the fizzy meaninglessness of a bubblegum pop song. As a biopic of flamboyantly theatrical gay frontman Freddie Mercury, the movie frequently falls short, but it does provide interesting origin stories for many of the hits created by Mercury’s band Queen.
Everyone loves Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody – with its staggering heft and operatic kitsch – as a go-to karaoke number, but it’s an overambitious one to try at the burnt-out end of the night: such renditions usually get grisly, when everyone’s too drunken or hoarse to carry the tune. The story of Freddie Mercury and his band, which has finally reached us on film, plays out a little like that. It strains effortfully for the top notes and vaguely growls the low ones. Still, there’s a solid middle range it manages to belt out, when everything’s aligned alright.
However, the film has a secret weapon, firing off all over the place to try and blast the movie out of its gentility: Rami Malek. As Mercury he is spectacular. A strutting, flamboyant peacock among pigeons on stage; a party waiting to happen and too scared to leave it. There are other lights in the cast — Ben Hardy is a lot of fun as Roger Taylor — but Malek outshines them all, giving the material a wallop it needs.
Bohemian Rhapsody looks set to do well with audiences, especially those who are keen to see those classic Queen tracks play out on the big screen with Rami Malek embodying Freddie Mercury. Whether or not those mixed critical responses will hamper its commercial chances or put an end to its Oscar dreams remains to be seen. The scandal doesn’t look like it’ll go away any time soon, particularly in regards to Bryan Singer.