Bohemian Rhapsody struggles to break free
It’s about damn time that Queen got a proper biopic. And by “proper” I mean “well-acted, not factually accurate, and more of a showcase for a big central performance than anything else.” Ya know, just like every other music biopic ever made. Despite being of identical quality to something more beloved like Walk the Line, Bohemian Rhapsody is getting a little less by way of forgiveness toward tropes, and for good reason. The behind the scenes troubles during production have been part of the movie’s news cycle for a few years now, and where we’ve ultimately landed — on a cookie cutter telling of the most archetypal rise/fall/rise tale imaginable, helmed by an alleged child molester who reportedly behaved like the monster we all know him to be while on set — isn’t really a good place for any movie to be. Add to that the fact that Walk Hard was such a spot on parody that no film set in its structural sights could ever evade comparison, and you’ve got a movie that cant help but feel like old news.
What Bohemian Rhapsody has that movies like Ray, Walk the Line, or Selena do not is the music of Queen, which, for my money, makes this colorful mess of tropes very much worth seeing, even if it’s painfully obvious how much lip-syncing had to be done on account of Freddie Mercury’s uniquely powerful voice. Production notes indicate that Rami Malek, whose performance is unreal in accuracy otherwise, came to the film with the ability to do a lot of the singing on his own. Similarly to the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, the filmmakers were able to blend recordings with the voice of the actor to create what they hoped would be a seamless viewing experience. Unfortunately for the sound team on Bohemian Rhapsody, literally no one has or ever will recreate Mercury’s impressive range, and even though Malek is all in on every ounce of the performance, it isn’t until the very end that the artifice of his voice begins to fade, and at that point it’s too little too late. It’s hard to judge a film on its inability to complete an impossible task, but since it’s very much a film built on formula, it does make the whole thing feel pointless and perfunctory.
In a moment of “He has to think about his whole life before he plays,” the film opens on Mercury getting pumped up as he approaches the stage for Live Aid, the legendary charity concert which featured a 20 minute set from Queen largely (and correctly) recognized as the greatest live performance in rock and roll history. Just before he presses through the curtain, we are taken back to the early days of Farrokh Bulsara, a flamboyant young hopeful whose Zoroastrian family has mixed thoughts on his career path of choice. Despite his father’s protestations (and ignorant to his sister’s knowing eye rolls at his assertions of heterosexuality), Farrokh spends his nights hitting music clubs and looking for a band for which to offer his tremendous singing/songwriting talent. In a moment of serendipity, Farrokh happens across said band moments after their singer quit to pursue bigger, better things. The remaining members, Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and Brian May (Gwilym Lee) are impressed by Farrokh’s talent (not so much by his flamboyant stage antics), and bring him on board. Soon, they recruit a bassist, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and begin making a name for themselves. Farrokh, too, has made a name for himself. A new name — Freddie Mercury (sorry, Dad).
Your typical biopic follows. The band rises in fame, pumping out exciting music despite urges from the powers that be to conform to cultural standards. With money comes power, with power comes excess, and with excess comes tragedy, as is typical for this kind of narrative. The film focuses mostly on Mercury, whose struggles with his sexuality enhance his inclination to lean into vice, ultimately leading to the diagnosis which turned him into a legendary statistic. For the other members of the band (each of whom are cast impeccably), their drama comes from trying to stay afloat and produce work they are proud of while trying to corral the excesses of their singer, who for the most part, views himself as the band’s meal ticket.
There are moments of higher art which rise above the standardized nature of the rest. Case in point, a sequence where John Deacon introduces the bass line to what would eventually become Another One Bites the Dust. The band’s initial concern was that Deacon’s taste as a songwriter is a little too disco inspired, but when they hear the line, all are immediately inspired to get to work. A montage follows in which we witness each layer of the future hit being added to the mix. The band’s internal chemistry is positively electric as their varied personalities and life experiences impossibly blend. It’s a kind of magic.
That was a reference a Queen song.
But moments like those are only peppered throughout, serving to highlight where much of the film falls short. Then again, it falls short only in ways that even the most highly regarded music biopics do. I lament that this is just more of the same, yet I’m unwilling to treat this as some sort of pop-cultural insult. I’d say that I’m almost as big a Johnny Cash fan as I am a Queen fan, and Walk the Line is exactly as good as Bohemian Rhapsody.
My biggest bugaboo regarding the film? The fact that it’s made by Bryan Singer, and man who, all highly believable accusations of sexual impropriety aside, isn’t that exciting a filmmaker to begin with. He sucks for all of the reasons, and I hate to compliment his work. That said, according to many MANY interviews with cast and crew, the 85% of the movie he allegedly did shoot, was mostly shot by assistant directors and other crew members anyway. I support this movie for them, not Singer. And the replacement director, Dexter Fletcher, whose Elton John biopic is on the horizon, seems to have injected some flavor into the proceedings as well. The overall look of Bohemian Rhapsody mirrors that of the trailer for Rocketman and there’s just no way I’d ever believe that Singer could create something so colorful. It’s not in his bag of bland tricks
Overall, this is nothing new. Neither good nor bad, but if you approach it from the right angle, it’s a lot of fun. The final 20 minutes - a beat for beat recreation of the legendary Live Aid performance, is certainly worth a ticket, even if its existence undercuts that of the entire film. Also, could it have hurt to actually have the titular song featured in its entirety? It’s the one song which is noticeably cut short any time it comes up, even during the final performance, and it’s a song whose length is debated heavily during the course of the film. It simply needs to be there and it’s not. Oh well.
Here’s my hottest take on this lukewarm movie: Literally nobody could have made it any better than it is, but it certainly could have been a lot worse.
Bohemian Rhapsody opens in Philly theaters today.