Everything you need to know about “Bohemian Rhapsody” — a broad, frivolous, and uselessly formulaic biopic about an inimitable band of misfits — can be surmised from a graphic that gets plastered across the screen in big letters when Queen embarks on their first American tour: “Midwest USA.” Not “Cleveland,” or “Detroit,” or “Kansas City,” but just “Midwest USA.” There’s not even a comma. That’s the degree of specificity in play here.
If not for Rami Malek’s feral posturing as one of rock history’s greatest frontmen, a deep roster of killer songs, and the long shadow of his band’s iconic 1985 performance at Live Aid, this movie could effectively be about any musicians, at any time, rolling through any part of the United States. From the disapproving parents, to the drug-fueled orgies, to the unbelievable scene when a young Freddie Mercury (née Farrokh Bulsara) introduces himself to Brian May and Roger Taylor mere seconds after the two bandmates have been abandoned by their original lead singer, it’s an out-of-body experience to watch such a paint-by-numbers portrait in a post-“Walk Hard” world.
If there’s anything more tiresome than the movies that inspired the Dewey Cox story, it’s a movie that uses Jake Kasdan’s damning parody as a template. Even when it’s funny, “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t in on the joke — it’s too busy burnishing its own myth.
Lucky for Bryan Singer — an increasingly bland director whose recent work is only distinguished by the “personal troubles” that got him fired off this production and replaced by Dexter Fletcher — Queen left behind one hell of a legacy. Despite the thudding obviousness of the movie’s opening moments (Anthony McCarten’s screenplay uses Live Aid as a framing device, because of course it does), there’s no denying the power of the music that’s slathered over them. The first notes of “Somebody to Love” all but demand your surrender; too operatic for mainstream radio, and too inclusive for the art rock crowd, Queen was always flamboyant, but never quite fashionable enough to go out of style. For all the ways in which “Bohemian Rhapsody” fails as a film, it more than succeeds as a reminder of Queen’s greatness, and as a compelling advertisement for their back catalogue.
That might have been the idea. May and Taylor were part of the creative process from the very beginning, and it shows: “Bohemian Rhapsody” purports to take us behind the music, but the film is so sanitized — so eager to share the credit, and so sheepish to assign the blame — that it often feels like a network TV version of a story that tries to celebrate people for refusing to sand off their edges.
Singer (or Fletcher) introduces us to Mercury with a quick glimpse of his pre-fame stint as a baggage handler at Heathrow, but the film never meaningfully addresses who/where he was before that, or how his experience as an immigrant may have prepared him for a lifetime as an outsider. Likewise, in a biopic that emphasizes the value of families — both the ones we’re given, and the ones we find along the way — Mercury’s relationship with his mom and dad is so underwritten that the actors who play them (Meneka Das and Ace Bhatti) might as well have been replaced by some text that read: “Working Class Parents UK.” No comma. No nuance. No interest in seeing them as anything more than another self for Mercury to try on and cast off.
Precious little of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is interested in human beings and how they work. More often than not, the film makes you feel like you’re watching a group of talented actors cos-play Queen’s Wikipedia page, all of them fudging the facts whenever they get too close to making these rock legends seem like real people. Or — worse — fudging the facts in order to make these rock legends seem like real people.
It’s bad enough that the movie asks us to believe that every clichéd pissing contest in the recording studio ended with May or Rodgers stumbling upon the riff of a classic track like “Another One Bites the Dust” (cut to the band performing the completed song at an arena somewhere), but it’s inexplicably perverse that the movie retcons Mercury’s HIV diagnosis as the band’s motivation for Live Aid… a concert that took place two years before the singer is believed to have been diagnosed. It’s insulting to see the lengths to which this film tries to capture the melodrama of Queen’s music, and humiliating to see the lengths by which it fails.
The average scene in “Bohemian Rhapsody” is more benign, but most of them find Malek swanning around in fits of Fosse-like movement as the rest of the characters awe at Mercury’s genius while trying to claim some of it for themselves. That tendency is sometimes understandable, as Malek’s spirited performance manages to channel Mercury’s angular flamboyance while still hinting at something deeper below the surface; it’s a satisfying, hammy turn in a movie with no other meat on the bone.
Of course, the inherent problem of a biopic about a dead singer’s inimitable brilliance is that it can only prove its point by coming up short. In fact, the film’s most sincere tribute to its leading man is Malek’s utter inability to re-create his voice. While Joaquin Phoenix could approximate Johnny Cash, and Benjamin Dickey almost brought Blaze Foley back to life, Freddie Mercury’s range was too great for anyone else to span. Malek, talented as he is, could never pull it off, and that wouldn’t have been acceptable in a movie that was only made to sell music. Singer’s solution? Use recordings of Mercury, but sour them — ever so slightly — with Malek’s best attempt at mimicking it. It’s a clever solve, but also one that points back towards the pointlessness of this whole project.
Naturally, the only scenes that ring with any semblance of truth are the ones without music, most of which focus on Mercury’s complicated relationship with Mary Austin (“Sing Street” breakout Lucy Boynton). It’s touching to see how well she sees him, and bittersweet to watch as the singer’s dawning self-acceptance as a gay man dooms their romance.
Malek manages to thread that needle with impressive results, always balancing Mercury’s flashy self-interest against his fundamental sincerity, so that even his most narcissistic moments don’t distract from his underlying kindness. If only “Bohemian Rhapsody” were half as graceful in how it characterizes the people who get in his way (Mike Myers’ cartoonish portrayal of record executive Ray Foster is a huge mistake), or the ones it scapegoats for all of the band’s interpersonal problems (Mercury’s personal manager is written to feel sinister at best, borderline homophobic at worst, and always so pronounced that none of the living band members ever have to examine their role in what happened).
Queen’s music may have been unclassifiable, but their movie is as trite and textbook as it gets. Even the highlights are compromised by inauthenticity; the climactic Live Aid set at the end of the film captures almost every note of what made that performance so spectacular, but the screaming crowds at Wembley Stadium are all computer-generated [update: “Bohemian Rhapsody” visual effects producer Tim Field corrects that the Live Aid crowds “were not computer-generated,” and that “each crowd member was individual shot using a six-camera array and composited into each shot with the correct actions matching the real Live Aid reference“]. It’s par for the course in this terrible and self-indulgent piece of revisionist history, where the legend is always prioritized over the truth, even when the truth was surely far more interesting. When band manager Jim Beach crows, “You’re a legend, Fred! We’re all legends!,” the movie is all too happy to take him at his word.
Of course, they are legends, and most people will already know that before they buy a ticket. The critical failure of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is that, 134 minutes after the lights go down, the members of Queen just seem like four blokes who’ve been processed through the rusty machinery of a Hollywood biopic. By the time the film is over, these singular rock gods might as well be anyone; not because they’ve been humanized, but rather because of the profound extent to which they haven’t been.
20th Century Fox will release “Bohemian Rhapsody” on November 2.