‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is a movie version of a poorly edited Wikipedia article, complete with a confusing synopsis, a neutered personal life section, and zero visual energy
Queen’s performance at Live Aid is frequently called one of the crowning achievements in rock and roll, an adored and incredibly talented set that gives you everything you love about Queen at once. Everyone with even a slight enjoyment of Queen deserves to watch it. Bohemian Rhapsody opens and closes the film with this concert, preparing you for a show-stopping performance. And instead, the final concert just echoes everything that made the film before it so bland. The film reminds you what you love about Queen and plays the music you adore, with Rami Malek and company doing a sold job lip-synching along without ever stepping on the toes of the real musicians. But with historical inaccuracies, a forced sense of sweetness and a strange self-mythologizing of Queen — apparently Live Aid was a failure until the exact moment they hit the stage and the foundation made a million pounds! — everything pales. Bohemian Rhapsody cares only about reminding you that Queen is great, to the detriment of its leading man.
Better writers than I have discussed the interference that surviving Queen members/Bohemian Rhapsody producers Brian May and Roger Taylor had on the film, not allowing a Freddie Mercury story unless it’s also about everyone else. When the movie starts, the band that would become Queen is already very talented and would have been successful if their lead singer didn’t just quit. Thankfully that same day they meet Freddie Mercury, and from the beginning, Rami Malek is fairly amazing, the shining star in the otherwise so-so cast. Pulling Mercury from his Parsi home and conservative father, they quickly catapult to stardom. We don’t see this, however, and instead watch them go from nobodies directly into recording a massive album. The first ten years of the band play out over less than an hour of the bloated runtime (133 minutes total), and it constantly feels listless. A song is written, the world loves it, the band succeeds, repeat. The back half of the movie follows Freddie Mercury’s descent into drugs and debauchery, though none of that is seen in the PG-13 movie. And none of that is seen by the other members of Queen, made the victims of Mercury’s antics.
At the center of Mercury’s fall is the strange ways the film treats his sexuality. Though the film portrays Mercury as gay (he never fully identified as gay or bisexual in life), the deepest emotional connection he has is with a woman. Mary Austin (played by a solid Lucy Boynton) is the driving force in his artistic success. Many times in the movie it feels like we should be rooting for their ending up together, and when he loses her it feels less like a gay man coming out and more like a man being dumped. The angelic Mary counters the truly demonic Paul Prenter (Alan Leech), the second-most important queer character in the film and easily the movie’s villain. Because in the wonky view of this film, the “best” way to be is straight and married and committed and sober, as May and Taylor are. Mercury rejects that to embrace the rockstar life, and his queerness becomes another show that he has become degenerate. It takes Mercury’s eventual diagnosis with AIDS for him to repair his relationships with friends and family. In a movie about a man who was unabashedly himself throughout his life, the film (directed by a gay man) is unwilling to let Malek be the queer, self-confident Mercury. Instead, we watch him suffer while every other member of Queen manages to survive on to their own happily ever after.
Biopics about musicians are hard to do well. When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. When you’ve seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story you can’t unsee them. But Bohemian Rhapsody feels uniquely lazy. Every song is great because Queen is great. And Bohemian Rhapsody’s Mercury is great because a mix of the real Mercury and the talented Malek are each incredible. But when you watch a slow progression of characters tell you “Queen is great and never got bad. The problems with the group are all because of Freddie,” it just feels wrong. The story just hits false, and while you’re going to leave humming your favorite songs, it’s because the music is amazing. Bohemian Rhapsody the movie can’t live up to Bohemian Rhapsody the song in a million years.
Bohemian Rhapsody is in theaters now. Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Ben Hardy and more. Directed by Bryan Singer.