OnScreen Review: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

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Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

I’m trying something a little different with this review. Instead of doing the traditional, straight forward review of the film, I’m changing it up and going with an “Up/Down” format for this one. Bohemian Rhapsody is a biopic about the life of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Rami Malek. Let’s get into it.

UP: RAMI MALEK. This role and this film have been in development for quite a few years now, and Malek is the one that the roulette wheel seemed to land on after Sasha Baron Cohen was attached to the film for a long time. That’s a performance I would have been very interested in seeing, but Malek takes on the role and owns it about as well as anyone could. Mercury was a larger-than-life, flamboyant persona and Malek captures that and brings it to life. He is bit smaller that Mercury in stature, which is hard to ignore at some points, but when he is performing he really nails it.

DOWN: HISTORICAL ACCURACY. Every movie takes liberties with the truth. “Based on a true story” hardly implies a faithful re-telling of events. But I’ve seen few biopics plays as fast and loose with the timeline and what happened as Bohemian Rhapsody. Playing around with the sequence of when songs were released and in what year is benign enough. The same can be said for fudging how the band formed. However, there are at least three major events that the film plays fast and loose with or outright fabricates.

First, the band never broke up, which happens, according to this film, in the early 80s when Freddie is lured to doing a solo record. Second, the breakup of the band makes the Live Aid performance, which is the climax and framing mechanism of the film, a reunion performance, which it never was. Lastly, they change the time that Freddie finds out that he has AIDS to before the Live Aid performance rather than nearly two years later when he really found out, unnecessarily adding heightened stakes to the performance. There are a few other liberties that the film takes, which is not abnormal, but it seems rare when all of the surviving members of the band are producers in the making of the film.

DOWN: FREDDIE MERCURY’S PERSONAL LIFE. This is a tough one. On the one hand, the stories of Freddie Mercury’s personal life are all over the place with wild tales of debauchery. And they were wildly speculated upon in tabloids and reporters were constantly curious about his love life and long-rumored homosexuality and drug use. But way too much of the personal side comes off as melodrama. There is a scene where Freddie finally has to come clean to his fiancé, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), that he is not sexually attracted to her, that is just one of the most formulaic biopic moments I can recall. In later parts of the film, when Freddie is wealthy but lonesome, he acts almost like a weird recluse whenever he is alone by himself, which is apparently why he throws big, extravagant parties.

UP:  QUEEN’S MUSIC. I’ve always lived in a world where Queen was hugely popular and their hits have always been played on the radio; at times when I was younger and more naïve about music I thought maybe even overplayed. But there is no denying the brilliance, power, and bombast of their songs and why they’ve had such wide appeal and endurance over the years. As soon as I was out of the theater and in my car I was cranking the Queen Greatest Hits album. Though some of it feels glossed over, the film does a fairly good job of exploring the creative process behind some of their biggest songs, especially the eponymous “Bohemian Rhapsody” where the band channels their inner Christopher Walken as Bruce Dickinson on SNL and “explore the studio space.” That elaborate creative process is nicely contrasted with the simple but catchy songs like “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” that become their own kind of anthems.

DOWN: THE BIOPIC FORMAT. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed like we were on a decent run of creative and original movies that didn’t fall into the generic trappings of the biopic format. But so much of this movie screams “formula” while you are watching. This is the kind of movie that Walk Hard was lampooning a decade ago. That there seems to be a lack of self-awareness in how generic some parts of this movie play is alarming. Also, I know that the film is more about Mercury than the rest of the band, but there is a high amount of canonization of Mercury and elevating him over the other members of the band. They all get a chance to show their brilliance as artists and what they bring to the band, but it all eventually fades into the background to the hero worship of the lead singer; thirty minutes after telling him, “You have to slow down, Fred” the same band member is telling him, “You’re a legend, Freddie.” Again, very odd considering the band members were producers. The script early on attempts to posit that the band is greater than the sum of its parts, but that is essentially shoved aside to assert that Queen was great because of Freddie Mercury was transcendent.

DOWN: MIKE MYERS. Myers has a cameo as a record producer who is less than impressed with “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the song is too long and nothing like their previous hit. Myers is known for doing elaborate characters that require heavy makeup or prosthetics. It’s actually not a bad makeup job and it could be easy to not recognize him, but once you do recognize him there is no forgetting that it’s Myers, or that one of his most famous characters, Wayne from Wayne’s World, is pretty inexorably tied to the song. If the film just left that connection dangling, I’d say it was some clever meta-casting, but because it can’t resist going for the obvious nod to Wayne’s World it comes off more as gimmicky and a bit of a groaner.

UP: THE LIVE AID PERFORMANCE. The recreations of the live performances, where Queen’s music is at the forefront, are the best parts of the film, and the pinnacle of all of that is the Live Aid performance. Malek holds nothing back in this moment, giving an impressive, powerful, and playful rendering of this iconic performance. The film is building unevenly to this climax, and it is a closing fifteen minutes that is almost too good for the film that has preceded it. Similar to A Star Is Born, it captures the enormity of being on stage in front of a sea of people. And no matter how flawed some of the movie is, there are some beautiful cinematic shots in this moment; the shot where Mercury’s reflection is seen in the glossy black finish of the piano as he plays is nothing short of chill-inducing.

Given their catalog, it was almost impossible for a biopic about Queen and Freddie Mercury to be a complete disaster. It’s an uneven film that has a lot of problems with reality and the timeline of the band, but Rami Malek’s central performance, the overall music, and the closing Live Aid performance keep this head-banging car from going off the road (Hey, if Mike Myers is going to go there, so will I).

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars