There’s probably some rock star out there whose life could only result in a boring biopic. But it takes a certain degree of, um, talent to make a crashingly dull movie about Freddie Mercury, one of the least drab humans who ever lived.
Yet that’s just what director Bryan Singer accomplished in Bohemian Rhapsody — or, well, let’s not be too generous. Singer was by all accounts an unprofessional terror to work with, failing to show up, getting into fights with his actors, and at one point hurling a piece electrical equipment on set, though Fox executives somehow deemed that incident “not actionable.” Eventually, after asking to pause production for several weeks, Singer was fired from the film with a few weeks left to shoot, and Dexter Fletcher finished it, though because of the director’s guild rules, Singer is still its sole credited director.
(Don’t worry: In Hollywood, that kind of behavior, even in concert with long-simmering accusations of sexual harassment and assault, won’t prevent you from landing another high-paying job, provided you’re a guy.)
But even if the stories of Singer’s troubled production weren’t common knowledge when they were happening a year ago, Bohemian Rhapsody, directed from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, bears all the signs of something having gone awry. What could have been a colorful, imaginative rendering of a talented artist who exulted in being profoundly extra is instead weirdly hollow and plodding. It feels more like a high school skit about Freddie Mercury — albeit one starring Rami Malek — than a movie about the Queen songwriter and frontman.
And though some fans of Queen will still find something to love about Bohemian Rhapsody — the recreation of the band’s 1985 Live Aid performance at the end of the movie, in particular, delivers some much-needed highs — the way it scrambles some aspects of Mercury’s career while seeming strangely ashamed of his personal life may be enough to ruin it for others. Sloppy storytelling may have been bearable in a movie that showed some passion for its subject. But Bohemian Rhapsody is just a limp mess.
Bohemian Rhapsody plods perfunctorily through the story of the Queen frontman
Malek does his level best to rescue the film, in which he plays Mercury with aplomb, prominent buck teeth, and an occasionally wavering accent. (He does sing at times, too, but most of Mercury’s performances are an amalgamation of Queen recordings and, in a weird twist, a solid imitation of Mercury by Christian rock singer Marc Martel.) It’s more of an impression than a performance, but it’s big enough that everything else gets pushed out when he’s onscreen.
Born in Zanzibar to parents of Parsi descent and named Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury moved to England with his family as a teenager; there, he fell in love with music, met his bandmates, changed his name, and fought with his parents (played by Ace Bhatta and Meneka Das) about his life choices.
In Bohemian Rhapsody, that sequence of events ticks the first item off the rock biopic must-have list: Rebellious young man escapes stern home life by joining a band. In this case, the band is Queen (the other members are played by Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, and Gwilym Lee). Freddie meets them by chance in a parking lot outside a gig and quickly becomes their frontman and artistic visionary. At first they’re just playing college gigs, but soon, they’re a much bigger deal.
Tick two: He meets a girl. She’s Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), and she believes in him when nobody else does. They love each other. They form a lasting bond. She is his lifeline and biggest support.
But the obstacle that threatens their relationship — tick three — comes not from other girls but from Freddie’s growing realization, and Mary’s along with it, that he is gay. He and Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) strike up an affair, one that both proceeds and eventually ends in a manner that seems ripped from a time when this sort of relationship was only depicted as scandalous and aberrant. In Bohemian Rhapsody’s rendering of Mercury’s story, he is not so much a man acting on his own desires and power as a gay man as someone who falls sway to a sinister influence, and pays the price.
The bill comes due with the AIDS crisis of the ’80s. In real life, Mercury died in 1991, having publicly revealed his AIDS diagnosis only the day before. In the film, he makes the diagnosis public the day before performing at the 1985 Live Aid concert, which brought together some of the world’s most famous musical acts for what is still one of the largest rock shows in history, and which was broadcast around the world to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief. Queen’s set at Live Aid — considered one of the greatest live performances of all time — is ably reenacted at the end of Bohemian Rhapsody (while the crowd is recreated less ably through noticeably bad CGI).
And then we’re told via end credits that Freddie died — a move that seems so modeled on the ending of the satirical rock biopic Walk Hard that it seems comical. And, well, that’s the end. Roll credits, accompanied by footage of the real Freddie Mercury, presumably so we can all admire how similar Malek’s performance was to the real thing.
Bohemian Rhapsody is faintly insulting to its subject, who was much more interesting than the movie
There’s a strange sterility to the whole enterprise that, even to casual observers, seems totally out of sync with the character at the film’s center. Bohemian Rhapsody was made with the cooperation of Queen’s surviving members, but they reportedly were only willing to sign on if it wouldn’t be R-rated, and thus it’s scrubbed clean of much of the content that might round out a film more committed to accuracy regarding the lifestyle of its characters.
The result is that we’re always seeing the aftermath of certain events, never the events themselves. There’s no sex in this movie, and nothing that could really be considered “partying.” We see some aftereffects — postcoital conversations, rooms littered with bottles and refuse — and fill in the blanks because we’ve seen rock movies before. We know what happened here.
But that’s not only true of Bohemian Rhapsody’s racy content; everything in this movie feels like a quick sketch of what really happened, a sprint through perfunctory conversations and plot points that will connect the dots between moments in Mercury’s life and the band’s career to get him to Live Aid. Nothing is surprising, except how little is surprising.
When a scene does go on and on — as when a recording industry mogul snottily declares that not only can Queen not make “Bohemian Rhapsody” the first single off their 1975 album A Night at the Opera, but that if they don’t listen to him, they’ll never make it big — you can practically feel the camera winking at you. Will that same mogul later appear onscreen moodily sipping some brown liquid from a tumbler as he listens to the band play the gig of their lives on TV? Reader, you bet he will.
What exactly is the point of this? Bohemian Rhapsody feels like a movie made to prove you were paying attention in a very specific sort of history class, without any idea why the story matters except that it happened. It feels more like an adaption of a Wikipedia article — with dialogue written by an artificial intelligence that was trained by watching rock biopics — than like a tribute to its subject’s brilliance.
So if you want to know why Queen mattered to music, why a band so enamored of gleeful artifice caught the hearts of stadium-filling crowds, why this particular singer-songwriter was so different from dozens of others, you’ve come to exactly the wrong place.
Come on. This is a movie about the guy who wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody” — the long, weird, baroque song to which generations of young and happy partygoers have shouted along enthusiastically — and that’s just one of many reasons he’s important to so many people. Freddie Mercury was a legendary performer, a highly talented musician, and a figure of inspiration to people navigating the choppy sexual politics and heartbreak of his time. Watching Bohemian Rhapsody, you may find yourself wishing that its filmmakers had half the gumption of their subject. That they’d dared to rock the audience, dared to fight to the end, dared to make a movie that really matters to anyone.
Bohemian Rhapsody opens in theaters on November 2.