On paper, Bohemian Rhapsody, Fox’s troubled-but-anticipated biopic of the rock band Queen – and in particular its flamboyant front man Freddie Mercury – should be a showstopping tour-de-force. The band is one of the most phenomenal forces of 20th century popular music, with hits enough to justify the movie just being a greatest-hits montage of all their best material and still have it be worth your time and money. Mercury is a genuinely fascinating creature: certainly more so than any of the so-called characters that pass off as leading men and women in similarly high-profile rock dramas. And then, of course, there’s Rami Malek, the up-and-coming thespian who seems to be just one good movie away from really breaking out onto the Hollywood A-list.
And yet, despite everything that they had to work with on this film, it can’t help but be the paper-thin facsimile of history that we’ve come to expect from these soulless, manufacture, “good enough” productions. We watch the expected narrative arc of the band as they assemble like guitar hero Avengers over the first act, experience the expected growing pains of fame, come to the expected head of dismemberment into less successful solo careers and then expectedly reunite just in time for the famous Live Aid concert that defined so much of the band’s storied existence. Along the way there’s the usual parade of girlfriends, boyfriends, drug-addled parties, playful recording sessions and lusty live performances.
It’s not that Bohemian Rhapsody is a bad film at all. On the contrary, it’s quite passable as the kind of time-killing, middle-of-the-road entertainment that it sets out to be. It’s just that it is only that: something to kill (rather than fill) time. It is never more than half-good, and is often dizzyingly average – something that the real Queen never was.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the problem with historical biopics is that the unfolding of real-life events rarely fits comfortably into the expected structure of a feature film. Reality bends and breaths in different rhythms than the ins-and-outs of well-structured scripts. Crucial events often lack the necessary buildup to feel quite as important as they, in fact, are and are often mired in the boring minutia of day-to-day life. I’ve praised biopics in the past that have deviated from history in the same ways that good adaptations stray from novels or plays: by reshaping the narrative into a form that more comfortably conforms to what works for film.
Same with those aforementioned novels and plays adaptations, however, there is always a point when a movie goes too far: when it strays too noticeably from its source and loses sight of why the original story was so beloved and compelling in the first place. It could be cutting out particular characters or sequences, rewriting critical scenes to the point of being unrecognizable or muddying up the works with cinematic clichés and the studio’s personal hang-ups. It is in this sense that Bohemian Rhapsody ultimately fails: it is a poor adaptation of the real-life story of Queen – one that is much more interested in the sanitized version of events that allow for it to enjoy its audience-grabbing PG-13 rating and for the sufficiently flattered, surviving members of the band to sign off on the use of their generation-defining discography.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a rock-and-roll origin story without sex (although there is some tender smooching here and there). It is a rock drama without drugs (although Mercury does once eat what may or may not be a red tic-tac and leaves a light spray of dusty powder in his unkempt living room). It is a musical biopic that goes bends over backwards to compliment every other band member for every little contribution that they made to the band through the almost-sycophantic mouthpiece of Rami Malek’s Mercury.
Speaking of Malek’s central performance… it’s alright. Just that: a perfectly fine pantomime of an incredible performer. He is unfortunately saddle with an incredibly distracting mouth prosthetic that grotesquely exaggerates Mercury’s admittedly unique-looking mouth into something that looks entirely inhuman. This is exacerbated by the odd, side-eyed angles from which Malek is typically shot, and made embarrassingly obvious for the mistake that it is when close-ups of the actual Mercury’s mouth from archival footage are shown during the film’s end credits. And in a year when A Star Is Born (2018) is dropping jaws in cities across the world for its performers’ in-camera singing, Malek’s obvious lip-syncing against recordings of the actual Mercury are almost painful to watch.
But, taken on the whole, the film is perfectly satisfactory for anybody who simply wants to kill a few hours listening to their favorite Queen album on the big screen (occasionally broken-up by stilted bits of dialog and overlong looks of longing). The Live Aid Concert is a fantastic bit of musical filmmaking and Malek will doubtless start appearing in much better movies that this.
Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.