It would be difficult for any film filled with wall-to-wall recreations of Queen’s wonderful pop hits to be entirely bad, but Bohemian Rhapsody, a ritzy biopic that crams 15 years of the band’s history into a sleek 134-minute feature film, comes awfully close.
Almost every musical sequence here, which includes a wonderful behind-the-scenes recreation of the band’s classic titular track and numerous others, is a pleasure to sit back and take in and let the familiar sounds wash over.
And a climactic 20-minute recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance, here presented as Freddie Mercury’s great last gasp, is so engaging and ends the film on such a high note you’re likely to leave the cinema convinced you’ve seen a better film than you actually have.
But the rest of the film, unfortunately, feels like an insult, rather than a tribute, to one of the greatest rock icons to ever grace the stage.
Of course, Bohemian Rhapsody was never going to be the eye-opening, Mineshaft-exploring journey through the personal trials and tribulations of Mercury (here played by Rami Malek), who contracted AIDS along the way and passed away in 1991.
What we’re left from the Mercury with is a couple very brief-but-touching Jazz Singer-esque sequences between Mercury and his traditional father (Ace Bhatti), a complex relationship with lifelong friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), a quick kiss from longtime companion Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) and some gaslighting and manipulation from manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech).
Rami Malek wouldn’t be the first choice of many to play Mercury – he doesn’t come close to having the stage presence of the rock icon – but he’s phenomenal regardless, creating a vivid, fully-realized character that we can’t keep our eyes off. Even if it’s one that doesn’t always resemble the bigger-than-life real-world figure he’s supposed to be playing.
But Bohemian Rhapsody never gets deep enough into this character – whether it’s the real Mercury or a glossy, family-friendly fill-in – for us to really care. The movie’s small-but-big emotional moments – a hug with his father, a handhold from Hutton – never quite hit us in the intended way, because this Mercury never falls far enough in the other direction.
Part of that is down to the limitations of a feature film depiction, but part of it is do to an unwillingness of the filmmakers to get down to the nitty-gritty of the real Mercury. For all the films about the perils of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, this one about the sexiest, druggiest, rock’n’rolliest of them all comes across as shockingly tame.
Some of that, I’m sure, is down to the participation of the surviving members of Queen, here played by Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joseph Mazzello. The irony is that these characters are the biggest casualty of this clean-cut portrayal of the band; never in the wrong, never a subject of drama, each of the band members disappears into the film without creating the whiff of a real-life character.
“No thanks, Fred,” Lee’s Bryan May tells Mercury after being offered a glass of champagne.
“This isn’t our scene.”
But for all the tame biopic stuff – which also includes some fun work by Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander, and Mike Myers, in a canny nod to Wayne’s World, as rock music execs – Bohemian Rhapsody does indeed soar when it sticks to the stage, and that Live Aid finale is so fun it almost makes up for everything else.
Bohemian Rhapsody was (mostly) directed by Bryan Singer, who was replaced during filming by an uncredited Dexter Fletcher; the resulting film is a typically glitzy, glossy piece of work that struggles with the storytelling. A lot of that can also be attributed to trying to cram so much story, and so many years, into a single coherent screenplay (credited to Darkest Hour’s Anthony McCarten).
While most will leave Bohemian Rhapsody abuzz from the film’s musical highs, few will be fulfilled on dramatic level; given the tepid treatment of its iconic central character, it’s an especially disappointing experience. But this is the only Queen biopic we’re going to get, and, well, it’ll just have to do.