There is a particular moment that stands out in Bohemian Rhapsody (★★½), Bryan Singer’s biopic about the legendary rock band Queen and its equally iconic lead singer Freddie Mercury. At the end of a raucous party in his giant mansion, Mercury sits alone with a waiter who asks why Mercury throws such lavish affairs, given he doesn’t seem to like most of the people who attend and they all leave him at the end of the night. Freddie, pausing for a moment to think, responds that they’re useful to fill the “in between moments” — a distraction that quells the darkness of his life when he’s not on stage with the band.
It’s a poignant reminder of the dark side of fame, that those who crowd around celebrities are not often their closest friends or family. It’s also an insight into Mercury the showman, whose stage bravado gave way to someone who yearned simply for companionship and family of his own.
Unfortunately, it’s also an apt metaphor for Bohemian Rhapsody. Though billed as a Queen biopic, it also follows Mercury’s story with the band, but never truly settles on which aspect it favors more — Queen, or Queen’s frontman. Instead, Mercury’s side is relegated to the “in between moments,” filling time when Queen’s electrifying stage performances, its inventive studio sessions, and its band meetings and squabbles aren’t on screen. As such, neither aspect of the story truly wins out, resulting in a bland retelling of a truly incredible tale.
What’s baffling is that, somewhere in here, it feels like there’s the makings of a great film, a fact only enhanced by Rami Malek’s stunning performance as Mercury. Bohemian Rhapsody charts the band’s inception in the early 1970s to its performance at Live Aid in 1985, and throughout Malek utterly convinces as Mercury. On stage, he works every inch of the platform, conveying Mercury’s swagger, his confidence, and his sexuality, all while doing some of the tightest lipsyncing in recent memory. (Malek has been coy about the film’s singing, but it’s a mix of him, Canadian singer Marc Martel, and Mercury’s vocals.) Off-stage, he delivers Mercury’s development from shy but talented singer to world-conquering star — one enveloped in his own confidence and absolutely sure of what he deserves. Even with a giant set of false teeth to mimic Mercury’s overbite, Malek never strays into parody, instead delivering a researched, rehearsed and fully realized characterization. Malek’s performance drives Bohemian Rhapsody, even when the wheels are threatening to come off the tour bus and send the whole thing hurtling into a ravine — which is sadly quite often.
Not helping matters is that every other character is essentially a 2D impression of a person, all moving in and out of scene around Mercury to advance the plot through the years. Gwilym Lee gives a stunningly accurate portrayal of lead guitarist Brian May, but it’s wasted because, unless they’re on stage, the band is really only here to serve Mercury, or to occasionally provide friction against him. The only other person given proper treatment by the script is Mary Austin, Mercury’s fiance and lifelong friend. Lucy Boynton wonderfully captures their initial burst of love, which slowly bleeds away as she watches Mercury come out of his shell as Queen’s star rises — and it all crashes down when he ultimately comes out to her.
But really, the biggest flaws here are behind the camera, both in Bryan Singer’s direction and Anthony McCarten’s screenplay — especially the latter.
For starters, McCarten’s script is riddled with trite, cheesy, and unnatural dialogue, which not even Malek’s performance can save. He injects cartoon villains, such as Paul Prenter (Allen Leech, in an appropriately insidious performance), Mercury’s personal manager, who in this telling manages to isolate the star and convince him to break up with Queen and go solo. And, together with Singer, McCarten includes constant, fourth-wall breaking references to the success of the band’s most iconic hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” even though critics and record label executives said it would fail.
Perhaps his most egregious problem is that McCarten doesn’t stick to an exact representation of the facts. Instead, this is an embellished history, one that follows Mercury’s path, but frequently diverts from or fictionalizes aspects of it — for instance, Mercury learned he had HIV in the late 1980s, but by McCarten’s telling it was right before the band played at Live Aid, giving him a poignant reason to reunite with Queen and give the performance of his life. Sure, it’s rare for a biopic to stick exactly to the facts, and filmmakers are granted some license to jazz up a historical figure’s story to keep viewers intrigued or to help advance a plot, but what’s most surprising is that the alterations made here have produced something so insipidly dull and family-friendly.
Singer and McCarten have taken Mercury, an iconic LGBTQ figure, and so thoroughly sanitized him as to almost be accused of straightwashing. Mercury’s most prominently portrayed relationship is with Mary — it’s not until almost the ’80s that his sexuality is referenced beyond subtle nods. Bohemian Rhapsody‘s most convincing Mercury-specific scene is a powerful mashup of the band performing on stage laid over footage of Mercury descending into the bowels of a gay club, one filled with Tom of Finland characters bedecked in leather, mustaches, and muscles. It’s scintillating, invigorating, and entirely an outlier in this tame, unsexy film. Why was this the exception, and not the rule?
It also contrasts with any scene in which the band is creating their iconic music. Here, Singer creates genuine energy, showcasing the unique methods the foursome went to in order to generate their specific sounds, the perfection they aimed for, and the hours they spent cranking out hit after hit after hit. In these moments, if you’ll pardon the pun, the film truly rocks.
But that ultimately makes Bohemian Rhapsody difficult to recommend — at least without advising that expectations be set low. For fans of Queen’s music, scenes where the band is rocking out in front of audiences across the world will thrill and delight in equal measure. Bohemian Rhapsody is a love letter to Queen’s specific brand of rock, and one that begs for it to be seen in a theater with excellent sound. But off-stage, the historical inaccuracies will annoy, and true fans will nitpick at the details and the lack of focus on the other band members.
Fans of Mercury, perhaps expecting a film that showcases one of music’s greats, as well as a cultural and queer icon, will instead find a great actor relegated to delivering uninspiring dialogue while dancing around Mercury’s sexuality. And anyone who wanders into a theater looking for an engaging music biopic will instead walk out wondering why they spent over two hours watching Singer’s film crash around between elated concert sets and dreary moments of exposition. A stunningly recreated Live Aid performance, which occupies the latter fifteen or so minutes of the film, may lift spirits, but some will still leave disappointed.
What makes all of this worse is that Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t a bad film. The music is great, Malek is a powerhouse onscreen, Singer offers visual flairs as we move from ’70s to ’80s, and that Live Aid set really is something to behold — complete with a CGI Wembley Stadium filled with screaming fans. But neither Queen nor Mercury deserved a film that was merely okay. Sadly, that’s what we got.
Bohemian Rhapsody is rated PG-13 and opens nationwide on Friday, Nov. 2. For tickets visit fandango.com.
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