Queen are legends. And if you didn’t know that already, well, they’re going to reiterate it to you throughout Bohemian Rhapsody, don’t you worry!
Directed by Bryan Singer—who was fired and replaced by Dexter Fletcher due to erratic behaviour with only two weeks left of shooting—it tells the story of arguably the most iconic frontman of all time, Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), as well as how Queen came to be the biggest band in the world.
What Singer wants you to recognise in Bohemian Rhapsody is how great Queen are. Large chunks of the film are dedicated to Freddie and the band themselves coming up with great riffs on the spot, cutting to them playing the finished track at a sold-out arena. The film is the equivalent of Queen screaming how great they are constantly while occasionally whispering about Freddie’s life. As evidence of this, there’s an extended sequence where drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) tries to sing the “Galileo” portion of Bohemian Rhapsody at the highest pitch possible. While this is all fine on the surface, it’s actually the main problem of the film.
Written by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour; The Theory of Everything) from a story by McCarten and The Crown creator Peter Morgan, we receive a film which only wants to be a celebration and nothing more, coming across as a hollow product instead of something which has anything profound or interesting to say about Freddie or the band.
We start in the early 1970s which shows Mercury, known then as Farrokh Bulsara, as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport. At a gig, Mercury meets Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor outside of the venue, where their lead singer has just quit. Wowing them with his amazing vocals, Freddie becomes the lead singer of a band that will become a global phenomenon. In a space of no longer than ten minutes, they have acclaimed hits, record deals and are playing across the US. This furiously fast pacing is a prime example of what is limiting about the cinematic biopic.
A biopic will often depict the most prominent events and relationships of a said subject’s life in an episodic manner, trotting out the highs and lows along the way. The best biopics do something different to elevate themselves against the formula; unfortunately, Bohemian Rhapsody falls into this standard biopic territory. Most recently, First Man was able to break usual biopic trappings by expertly balancing the exploration of Neil Armstrong as a person while showing the struggle it took to get to the moon in an immersive fashion. Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs scrapped usual formula by showing Jobs at three distinct stages in his life prior to a product launch. And then there’s Bohemian Rhapsody; it’s ironic that a whole scene is dedicated to the band wanting to break formulas, yet the film itself has absolutely no interest in doing so itself.
Many were curious to see how deeply the film would explore Mercury’s homosexuality, and while it does offer insight, we spend a large amount of time with his lover and friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). During the film’s second act, we see Mercury embrace his homosexuality while simultaneously veering out of control during a relationship with his manipulative manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who happily enables a lot of Freddie’s self-destructive tendencies. In an often-uneasy fashion, the film uses Mercury’s struggles as a convenient backdrop for Queen’s highs and lows. As a solo artist, we see Freddie’s visible frustration with his house band and Mercury return to his bandmates to beg them to take him back days before their Live Aid set in 1985. Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis is used as the emotional catalyst and inspiration for their triumphant return to the stage at Live Aid. However, in actual fact, Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with the disease until 1987—quite a manipulative example of creative license, I think.
This brings me onto one of the most important parts of this film, that is band members Brian May and Roger Taylor being creative consultants on the project. Sacha Baron Cohen—who was originally slated to play Mercury—was in strong disagreement with May about the direction of the project, with Cohen wanting a dark look into Mercury’s complex life, while May wanted a more family-friendly film which protected the band’s legacy. It’s no surprise that the final product comes off as more of a puff-piece than an in-depth character study. Unfortunately, interesting story elements like Mercury’s relationship with his overly conservative parents are only developed in a couple of scenes.
Where the film delivers is the incredibly strong performance by Rami Malek who completely sells Mercury’s commanding stage presence and charm. Malek has fully immersed himself in Mercury and nails his famous physicality and flamboyancy. His work completely elevates the film and it’s a performance which thoroughly deserved better material.
Singer’s direction brings enough energy to disguise the fact the film has nothing really interesting to say apart from celebrating how great Queen are. Audiences will lap this film up because the music takes centre stage, leaving Freddie’s potentially compelling final years before death to a simple reading. Instead, the film’s third act comprises solely of the fifteen-minute Live Aid set. It’s great to hear Queen’s hits with Dolby ATMOS sound for sure, but it cements the fact that it feels like Queen made a 134-minute fan film about themselves.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a highlight reel instead of an attempt at discovering something insightful about the complicated life of one of music’s most iconic figures. Singer favours glossiness over intimacy at every turn, and while it may want to break free from the biopic formula, it never tries to. If you love Queen, you’ll probably adore this film for arguably great reasons. However, I can’t help but think that someone as larger-than-life as Freddie Mercury and as unformulaic and boundary-pushing as Queen themselves deserved something which isn’t so cookie-cutter.
Bohemian Rhapsody is out in selected Perth cinemas on November 1.