Bohemian Rhapsody, the song, was big, groundbreaking, over-the-top music the likes of which no one had heard before. Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie, is a formula bio-pic that brings nothing new to the genre and doesn’t find its heart until the last forty minutes.
The good news is: there is one truly bright, shining star in this film.
He Will Rock You
Rami Malek rises to the challenge of playing the larger-than-life legend that is Freddie Mercury. When he is on-screen, which, thankfully, is a vast majority of the film, you are transfixed. At no point did I think ‘oh, that’s Rami Malek playing Freddie Mercury.’
HIs performance is as over-the-top in this film as Freddie was on stage in the late seventies. And, like Mercury, he is at his best when he is reenacting the performances.
Depending on how much buzz Bradley Cooper is able to maintain from his performance in A Star is Born, Malek could win a Golden Globe and snag an Oscar nomination. He draws from two sources: the life of Freddie Mercury and his stage presence, and the script. And it’s the shoddy script that pulls this film down.
In The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep turned in an amazing performance despite an incredibly sub par script, and Malek does the same thing here.
I Want To Break Free
For the vast majority of this film this film treats the events of Queen and Freddie’s life like things worthy of a cursory mention in order to move on to the next.
Freddie has self-esteem issues? Check.
The band needs a new singer? Check.
The band is gonna change things up and produce music like no one’s ever heard? Check.
We’re given quick glimpses into their rise to superstardom, making it look like everything was mapped out and went according to plan, even standing up to the big, bad record executive who said Bohemian Rhapsody would never get radio play. (the aforementioned exec is played by Mike Myers, a meta-nod to the song’s inclusion in the Wayne’s World movie)
So much of this film, especially the first two-thirds, is done with a wink and a nod to the audience. It tries to use the (fabulous) soundtrack to trick the audience into singing along, in order to make us forget there’s no real substance being served up. Think Mama Mia but with even less substance.
Somebody To Love
Freddie’s sexuality is treated as yet another element at first, then borderline homophobic later. It (somewhat fairly) blames the break up of his marriage to Mary on his being gay. However they did stay close throughout his life and in death. She was his prime beneficiary to his estate.
Later the film tends to blame the gay liberation movement on the breakup of Queen as well as his death by AIDS-related pneumonia. It makes us believe that Freddie didn’t have a sexual awakening until he got a cruised by a trucker at a truck stop restroom, and needed band manager Paul Prenter to bring him screaming out of the closet.
It is disingenuous at a minimum. And that his fellow Queen members were involved in the film, you have to wonder how much of their own discomfort was injected into the script. If you see the film, Freddie’s house party scene is particularly telling.
Our creativity is a product of all our experiences and knowledge. Yet Bohemian Rhapsody tries to separate Fred’s sexuality from their creative process, except when it comes to Mercury’s diva behavior and the band’s breakup.
It’s as if there are two films: one dealing with the creation and rise of Queen, the second of a flamboyant homosexual on a self-destructive path, as if they knew a devastating epidemic was festering and they kept partying in the bushes of Fire Island anyway.
The film tries to absolve Freddie of some of this misdirected guilt by painting Prenter as a self-interested manipulator who succeeded in isolating Mercury from his friends and family. It’s too little, way too late.
A Kind of Magic
It’s not until the last third of the film that the movie makes any emotional connection with the audience. When Freddie is leaving his doctor’s office after getting diagnosed with AIDS, another patient, much further along in the grips of the disease, recognizes Mercury and gives him an AAA-OOOOHH. Freddie returns the call and response.
This is more likely than not a piece of cinematic fiction, meant to show us that even in the grips of a big disease, Freddie is even bigger. But it is emotional and brings us to the heart of what makes Freddie Freddie: his fans.
From there he reconciles with the band and overcomes illness to pull it together for the band’s Live Aid performance. The performance is regarded as the best 22 minutes in the history of live rock and roll. They owned that stage and turned Live Aid into Queen’s Crowning Achievement. The movie seems to recreate the entire set. Sure it’s a sing along. But it’s also an opportunity to show how important Freddie and his mates were to their fans.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Stoli, mixed with whatever mixers are lying around. The movie has us believe that was Freddie’s cocktail(s) of choice. And it will go a long way to numbing you to the inadequacies of a movie that has so much unrealized potential.