One should rarely admit that there are movies they wanted to like, critics especially. It blunts the truth. But I really wanted to like Bohemian Rhapsody, even with Bryan Singer’s putrid past and his actions on set, I’m a massive Queen fan. Instead, I got complete trash, a dumpster fire, a “[rotten] sort of cheese waiting on the shelf.”
Let’s start with the good: Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury is fantastic. There’s no other way to describe him. He completely assumes the mannerisms, the sound, the look and persona of this brilliant artist. He rises above mere artifice, causing us to forget that Mercury died long ago. Not only does Malek shape shift, but the rest of the cast is a group of dead ringers, from Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), to Brian May (Gwilym Lee), to John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello). The dynamic between all four is seamless and easy, and leads to some pretty funny moments. Mike Myers is also utterly brilliant in his small slice of a role as Ray Foster, ironically saying that Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t a song people will bang their heads to in a car. Additionally, I do wish there was more Tom Hollander, playing Jim Beach, who is severely underutilized. And that’s about it…. until the final 20 minutes or so.
The film misses several opportunities to make itself interesting. First, the issue of Mercury rejecting his ancestry; assimilating and rejecting his past for colonial acceptance, by changing his name, could have been a worthwhile vein to examine the singer from. Instead, it’s only lightly touched upon and quickly swerved away from. Secondly, it’s not a story about Queen. If it were, then the band members would have been given more backstory and more drama surrounding their lives. Also, Deacon wouldn’t have shown up randomly on stage with no explanation as to where he came from. Thirdly, if it’s not a story about Queen, then we need to see the end of Mercury’s life. We need to see more of his struggle with HIV/AIDS, whether, as he said, he wanted to be an “AIDS poster boy” or not. Without a full examination of Mercury, Malek can only become what’s in the script (which isn’t much).
Even with those shortcomings, you’d think the music would be perfect in Bohemian Rhapsody. However, the hardest scenes to film always involve songwriting. It’s easy for them to become contrived, to be too literal, to be just plain awful. Songwriting is a happening of the mind and heart, an “overflow of spontaneous emotion,” an interiority of inspiration and gritty work.
It’s near impossible to capture, but Bohemian Rhapsody provides as little background of the craft of creating these full-throated and timeless hits as a sock-puppet show. Our moments of creation are confined to Mercury scribbling notes to himself admiring his handiwork, it’s random songs popping up in the studio, fully completed, it’s band members arguing over tracklistings and asking their family members to do stomp-stomp-clap in the spur of the moment. For Bohemian Rhapsody, the creative process isn’t just confined to the interior, it’s never shown.
And because of that, we never conceptualize the band and their dynamics. They refer to each other as a family, but it’s a hollow word, a string of syllables with no melodic story to reflect its origin. These men initially meet each other, but that’s it. There’s no trial or tribulation, just elation and squabble. The grit, the intensity, the craft of bringing songs into the world, hell, of touring, that’s what makes a band. That’s how families are melded together. Instead, the road is reduced to montages that display nothing of the band’s struggle or growth. Bohemian Rhapsody is the cousin who forgot your wedding, but still wants a loan when you win the lottery. It’s no work, just reward.
That says nothing of scenes that have no narrative connection with the other, such as anything to do with Mercury and Mary (Lucy Boynton), the singer’s former wife. Their arc and relationship swerves in-and-out, with little explanation as to why she’s disappeared and reappeared. Bohemian Rhapsody may have been better served making a film solely about their relationship because it seems like that’s what the film was trying to do.
There’s also the rise of Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who the film tries to make into this Svengali figure who separates Mercury from his bandmates, but his rise is never quite explained. Instead, we magically jump from one year where he’s barely trusted to another where Mercury has implicit faith in him. It’s complete emotional disattachment in screenwriting.
Additionally, there’s a scene where Mercury gropes the ass of a man. The man threatens Mercury to never do that again without his permission, and a couple hours later they’re on the couch making out. How that scene could have made it into this film, with this current climate, well, you could probably thank “director” Bryan Singer because that seems right up his alley.
The only saving grace of the film, other than Malek, is the Live Aid portion that encompasses Bohemian Rhapsody‘s final 20 minutes. However, even that is fraught with challenges. During the lead-up, Mercury and everyone around him continually refers to it as the ‘African concert.’ At some point, it feels like the screenplay is aiming to make it into a punch line, but obviously it never hits. Still, the concert sequence is the one portion of the film where we feel the life of these songs as more than a required practice of scales. As Malek confidently struts across the stage, as we see the wave of people in Wembley stadium, we begin to understand what made that band so special. We see the band’s impact and their hold on the nation and the world. It will be impossible for you not to cheer along with those fans as you’re watching this film.
Sadly, it’s still not enough to save Bohemian Rhapsody from itself. It’s not enough to make this film more interesting than a Time Life infomercial. Bohemian Rhapsody was always going to be a jukebox, but even a jukebox, whose cold metallic and mechanical arm lifts your black vinyl disk with no emotion has more life than this. So once again, Bohemian Rhapsody: