Despite a strong performance by Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody plays out as an excessively sanitized version of Queen's story, rather than a labor of love.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the long-awaited musical biopic about British rock band Queen and particularly their lead singer Freddie Mercury, traveled a rocky road during its journey to the big screen. The movie went through multiple changes in personnel (lead actor in particular) before Rami Malek was cast as Mercury and Bryan Singer signed on to direct. Bohemian Rhapsody's woes didn't end there either, as Singer was fired in the midst of production for his unexplained absence from the film's set, after clashing with the cast/crew. Unfortunately, the final movie result doesn't really justify all the fuss it took to get made, either. Despite a strong performance by Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody plays out as an excessively sanitized version of Queen's story, rather than a labor of love.
The film picks up in London circa 1970, when Freddie (then still going by his birth name, Farrokh Bulsara) is a college-aged young man who works as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, but intends to make his name as a musician. One night, after watching local up and comer band Smile perform, Freddie convinces their guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to make him their new lead singer, after giving them a taste of his incredible vocal range. The three later add bass guitarist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) to their ranks and dub their new band Queen (a name picked out by Freddie).
Following their initial success, Queen hires a new manager in John Reid (Aidan Gillen) and grows increasingly experimental in the way they blend music genres, much to the consternation of their - eventually, former - boss at EMI, Ray Foster (Mike Myers). Before long, though, the band is touring the world to sellout crowds and Freddie not only becomes a celebrity in his own right, but also fully embraces his flamboyant manner and queer sexual orientation. However, as Freddie's wild personal life starts to go off the rails, it threatens to tear Queen apart and creates more and more distance between him and his onetime girlfriend-turned lifelong companion, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton).
The Bohemian Rhapsody script by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) - drawing from a story that he and Peter Morgan (The Crown) are credited for - sticks closely to the typical biopic formula by running through all the major events in Queen and Mercury's lives together, culminating with their performance at the Live Aid concert in 1985. As such, the film does a respectable job of charting the now-familiar story of a band's members sky-rocketing to fame, falling apart, and finally reconciling, yet fails to provide any real insight into them as people. Much of the movie focuses on Freddie's experiences specifically (more on that later), enough so that, in the end, Bohemian Rhapsody winds up revealing very little about the rest of Queen, bad or good. Seeing as the real Brian May and Roger Taylor were creative consultants on the film, they might be guilty of having underplayed their own roles in the band's story (including, the not so flattering parts), under the guise of "honoring" Freddie by focusing on his personal drama instead.
Although Singer is the sole credited director on Bohemian Rhapsody (per DGA regulations), a significant chunk of the movie's production was overseen by Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle). Since the latter followed the same blueprint as Singer, the film is pretty stylistically consistent and feels like a cohesive directorial vision overall. Problem is, that "vision" is pretty impersonal and relies heavily on basic techniques, like flashy montages that cover vast amounts of time (especially when Queen is on-tour), yet bring little additional substance to the narrative. Similarly, Bohemian Rhapsody stages Queen's concert performances in a perfectly adequate (if bland) fashion that feels all the more underwhelming coming on the heels of A Star is Born's visually engaging and innovative rock concert numbers. The movie's recreation of the Live Aid concert unsurprisingly makes for its best set piece, yet even that sequence is somewhat hindered by its overuse of digital tracking shots and closeups.
Malek's performance as Freddie Mercury (as indicated earlier) is easily the highlight of Bohemian Rhapsody, even when his fake teeth and whigs aren't as convincing as the way he captures the singer's charmingly ostentatious manner and swagger. Much like in real life, there's nary a moment when Mercury's bold personality fails to outshine those around him, whether he's posturing on-stage or hitting rock bottom in his career and life. The other members of Queen have little to do in the film by comparison and, thus, the actors behind them end up feeling a bit wasted here, despite their fine performances. The same goes for Boynton as Mary Austin, whose complicated relationship with Freddie is under-developed and fails to leave much of an emotional impact. As for Myers: his role amounts to an extended in-joke concerning Wayne's World's use of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and little more.
Unfortunately, the element that really drags Bohemian Rhapsody down is its disappointingly regressive portrayal of Freddie's sexuality, personal lifestyle and ultimate contraction of AIDS. The film simply does a poor job of examining the intricacies of Freddie's identity as a queer man and his messy relationships, in particular that with his longtime personal manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Bohemian Rhapsody likewise falls short when it comes to really exploring its protagonist's difficulties with his Parsi heritage and his attempts to play down his true ethnicity by legally adopting his stage name instead. In short: by striving to make Freddie Mercury more "accessible" to a mainstream audience, the movie lacks authenticity and ends up feeling a bit like a (for lack of a better description) "straight-washed" take on his life.
Altogether, Bohemian Rhapsody isn't a bad film so much as a middle of the road Hollywood biopic that fails to live up to the standard of Queen and Freddie Mercury's groundbreaking artistry. Malek's performance certainly helps to elevate the proceedings, but in the end this movie is very much the "safe" dramatization of Mercury's life that the surviving members of Queen reportedly wanted, for better or worse. Bohemian Rhapsody's musical numbers may get your toes tapping, but that's more to do with Queen's terrific songs that the unremarkable biopic around them.
Bohemian Rhapsody is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 134 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language.
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- Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) release date: Nov 02, 2018