Bohemian Rhapsody Review: No Escape From Reality
Bohemian Rhapsody Review: Rami Malek’s Oscar-worthy tour as Freddie Mercury keeps director Bryan Singer’s sanitized biopic from biting the dust.
Whether you actively think of yourself as a Queen fan or not, the odds are high that you like at least some of their music. Their list of greatest hits is mind-blowing, and some estimates put their total number of albums sold at over 200 million worldwide. In terms of certified sales they rank 11th all time, and yet if you can name all four original members without googling it you’re in rare company. So a biopic focusing on the band and especially its frontman Freddie Mercury isn’t all that surprising.
Queen has an amazing story to tell, and it’s a story many people are only vaguely familiar with. It builds on familiar ground but still tells has the room to tell a fresh story. Throw in an incredibly talented actor in Rami Malek who is willing to really dive into the role, and you have as reliable a formula to make a run for an Oscar.
Bohemian Rhapsody, however, is not in any danger of accidentally stumbling into any Oscars. Malek has an outside chance of catching a stray nomination but it won’t be thanks to director Bryan Singer, who – despite the subject material – crafts an exceedingly average movie. Or at least two-thirds of an average movie.
If you missed all the drama – or you’re a healthy person that doesn’t obsessively follow movie news – Singer was fired off Bohemian Rhapsody after completing about two-thirds of principal photography. He claims the studio cruelly ignored his requests for time off to visit a sick parent, the studio claims he was a problem child from the start and actors like Malek and Tom Hollander were both willing to quit.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but the end result is that director Dexter Fletcher stepped in to complete the film, handle reshoots, and oversee the final construction of the film (based on Singer’s plans). He did a fair amount of work, but not enough to merit a full credit according to Directors Guild rules. Plus, Singer is the one that determined the tone and the focus of the film, and that’s where most of the problems lie.
While the movie is being marketed as a Queen biopic, it’s really more of a Freddie Mercury (Malek) biopic. It starts with the singer and ends with him, and the beats are all focused on Mercury’s life. From the moment he meets bandmates Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) to when he begins dating his fiancé-turned-best (and possibly only) friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), everything revolves around Mercury.
The film tracks the period from 1970 to 1985, from the formation of Queen to one of their most legendary performances. It tracks the rise of the band and how fame affects them – or specifically how it affects Mercury and how mercury affects them. The rest of the band fades more and more into the background as Mercury explores his sexuality, and his increasingly extravagant lifestyle leads to isolation and solitude.
Of course, it’s all bullshit.
You kind of expect that biopics will take liberties with their subjects, and it’s not like the film pulls an Inglorious Basterds and completely rewrites history, but there are some significant alterations and some major oversights. Messing with timelines is fine as long as there’s a reason for it, but many of the changes are too convenient and too perfectly assembled. It borders on melodrama at times and just feels contrived – which it is.
The weirdest change though is that Bohemian Rhapsody neuters Mercury’s lifestyle to a shocking degree.
Malek does an exceptional job with what he’s given – from the awkward prosthetic teeth to the mannerisms to the merging of his voice with the real Mercury’s, it’s easy to forget who you’re watching. If the film could have given him enough content to really shine he’d be one of the frontrunners for Best Actor, but the movie sanitizes most of the points that really defined Mercury. And you can maybe make the argument that the focus should be less on the man and more on the music, the film wants it both ways.
Again, this isn’t a documentary, but Freddie Mercury was a gay man living in a country where until 1967 being gay or bisexual could mean a life sentence in jail. Mercury escaped that particular dark period, but only by a few years. He wrestled with his sexuality, often hiding it behind fake girlfriends and elaborate deceptions. It’s a tragic consequence of the times that inevitably led to feelings of isolation and loneliness. The film barely acknowledges that, instead focusing on the professional highlights and the odd personal conflicts in the singer’s life.
It also skips over most of the wild drug use and extravagant parties that were the stuff of legend. The film shows one or two parties, but they are fairly tame. The film even sets up one as a wild gathering of outcasts and misfits, but the result is actually kind of mild. The only way you’d know it was meant to be insane is because the characters say so, and the not-Freddie Mercury members of Queen all leave because it’s apparently too much. There’s even a hint of homophobia in their rebuke, but like everything else that is even potentially controversial – like Mercury’s exploration of gay clubs and having multiple partners – it doesn’t really go anywhere.
If the film for some reason really wanted to ignore all of Mercury’s wild side, that would be one thing. It would be a dumb choice, but at least it would have been a choice. But the film puts a heavy emphasis on it at times without ever building it up. That also makes Mercury’s journey and catharsis fall flat. It just feels like there are possibly hours of deleted scenes that were cut in order to make the movie tamer. Beyond
But throughout it all, there’s the music. Bohemian Rhapsody charts the origins of some of Queen’s biggest songs, which also means it shows the creation some of the greatest hits of all time. If you hate Queen’s music, you will probably be looking for the theater exit almost immediately. If you’re a fan, or at least you casually enjoy them, the film does an excellent job of presenting the music in a way that’s hard not to enjoy.
It also all builds to a semi-satisfying finale – even if it is at the cost of a deeper and more surprising film.
Bohemian Rhapsody Review Conclusion
Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie for Queen fans by Queen fans. It’s a celebration of the music, but it also drastically undervalues many of the things that made the band and their lead singer so intriguing in the first place. Imagine a movie about Led Zeppelin that just showed the band hanging out at the pool all day discussing clothing options instead of throwing TVs out of hotel windows and you may get the idea.
Probably the biggest disappointment in the film is how much of Malek’s incredible performance is ultimately wasted by the lack of depth. Maybe Singer can look for work in music videos and find his real calling.
Bohemian Rhapsody is rated PG-13 with a running time of 134 minutes.