Telling the behind-the-scenes story of groundbreaking rock band Queen, the long in the works "Bohemian Rhapsody" focuses on the life of lead singer Freddie Mercury starting when he first joined the band through his 1991 death from AIDS-related complications at age 45. The film boasts a wonderful lead performance from Rami Malek as Freddie, but its clichéd narrative and sloppy, safe storytelling let down the larger-than-life figure at its center.
The film arrives in theaters after a troubled production, with director Bryan Singer being fired late into its shooting, leading filmmaker Dexter Fletcher to be brought in to finish things up. Due to Directors Guild rules, Singer maintains sole directing credit for the film, but the final product feels a bit of a mess, lacking a singular vision behind the camera.
Perhaps as a result, "Bohemian Rhapsody" feels oddly unspecific, like a feature-length dramatization of the band's Wikipedia entry. We see what happens, but never get the how or why to put any of it into proper context. Everything's painted in broad strokes, and we get a lot of montages. Like, a lot.
Written by Anthony McCarten ("The Theory of Everything", "Darkest Hour"), the script adheres to the type of contrived formula that should have been a thing of the past after "Walk Hard," the brilliant 2007 send-up of music biopics (and a film that should be required viewing for any screenwriter seeking to take on the genre).
Born in Zanzibar as Farrokh "Freddie" Bulsara, the singer's family traveled to England when he was a teen. By the time we meet him, he's working odd jobs and dreaming of rock stardom. He gets his shot after introducing himself to college pub band Smile, led by lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Freddie meets the pair minutes after their lead singer has quit, and before you know it he's their new frontman. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) to their ranks, they're suddenly touring the world as Queen.
The same night he first meets May and Taylor, Mercury also makes the acquaintance of Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). They begin a relationship that would last throughout the years. Freddie called her the love of his life, and though they weren't always together romantically, she was a supportive presence in his life all the way to the end.
McCarten's script is cagey in its treatment of Freddie's sexuality. We see charged glances between Freddie and several anonymous men, but the film plays these scenes coyly, with the screen immediately fading to black.
The story gets a cartoonish villain in the form of band manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Constantly shot skulking around the edges of the frame, Prenter drives a wedge between the singer and his bandmates, introducing Freddie to a world of partying, drugs, and orgies (all off-screen, of course).
There's no attempt to explain why the free and open lifestyle Prenter presented might have such appeal for Freddie. When we do see Freddie embracing his sexuality (cue the montage of leather clubs), it seems to exist only to contrast the happy, heteronormative lifestyle of his bandmates, and the narrative devotes little time to his longtime (and final) partner, Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker).
In any biopic, we can expect some altering of facts and shifting the real-life timeline of events to manufacture drama, but the decision to make Freddie's AIDS diagnosis a motivating factor for the band's eventual reconciliation seems needlessly contrived. Moving it up several years makes it appear even more like a punishment for gay promiscuity, a needlessly cruel narrative decision. Ostensibly the script seeks to portray the devastating impact of life in the closet, but if Freddie had moments where he enjoyed his life as a rock star, we never see them.
An authorized biopic, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was made in cooperation with the surviving members of Queen, who maintained a fair amount of control over the story that was told. Reportedly, they refused to sign off on an R-rated version of the film, which explains the cursory treatment of the more unsavory details. But even with their participation, the script never devotes enough time to get a real sense of any of them as people.
However, there is time for eye-roll inducing scenes like the one with Mike Myers as a record company executive who complains that the band's operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody" isn't a song "kids can listen to in their cars and bang their heads to." We're meant to chuckle at the "Wayne's World" reference, but the scene itself comes across as a strained SNL sketch.
In the end, the film is surprisingly dull, which takes some work for a story about as vibrant an individual as Freddie Mercury. Some of the problem lies in the fact that for all of Freddie's attention-grabbing on stage theatrics, off stage he remained elusive. And the filmmakers seem at a loss trying to fill in those blanks or to glean any insight into such a private and closely-guarded individual.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" does have some things going for it though, first and foremost being Malek's magnetic presence as Mercury. It's a performance that veers into coming across as an impression, but even when lip syncing the vocals, Malek channels Mercury's ferocious energy and struts with the best of them. Then of course there's the fantastic music, with Queen's bottomless (fat-bottomed?) catalog of great songs to cycle through.
Unquestionably, the highlight of the film is the thrilling extended recreation of the band's 1985 set at the Live Aid benefit concert that closes the film. And honestly, if you can convince your local theater to sell you a ticket to the last 20 minutes of the movie, that's probably the best way to watch it.
The treatment of Freddie Mercury's sexuality is disappointing, since it not only informed who he was and the music he made, but it was an inspiration to so many people. Brushing so much of his queerness aside does a huge disservice to both the man and his fans, and it's hard not to wish for a film that took as many chances as the legendary talent it's paying tribute to.