I went into “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a film about the rock band Queen that focuses on singer Freddie Mercury, with low expectations. You might say that’s not fair, but my pessimism was not without merit.
The production of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was disastrous due to the movie’s original director, Bryan Singer, being a frequent no-show on the set. When he was there, he was said to have steered the ship with an unsteady hand.
20th Century Fox replaced Singer midway through filming. Google will happily serve up the sordid details (there are plenty), but the point is I could not imagine “Bohemian Rhapsody” being anything but an unholy mess.
Surprise, surprise, it’s not. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.
Like many biographical films, “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t offer a linear telling of Mercury’s life story. Instead, it takes clips from his highlight reel and reassembles them into a traditional dramatic narrative.
For example, although Mercury’s solo albums weren’t released until after the band’s famous Live Aid performance in 1985, writer Anthony McCarten used Mercury’s side projects as the catalyst for a breakup that occurs before Live Aid.
Mercury also didn’t reveal his AIDS diagnosis until after Live Aid, but McCarten places that before the concert, as well. I suppose he wanted to turn the Live Aid performance into a triumph. Musically, it’s great, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” breaks such a heavy sweat trying to make it something more that I wonder if it actually held that much significance.
In fact, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was assembled with such deliberate, connect-the-dots clarity that my faith in its accuracy was nearly dissolved by the end. As relationships are mended in brief scenes and Queen single-handedly lights up the Live Aid switchboard with calls from donors, I scoffed. Too much of the film seems manufactured to produce a specific emotional response when real life is rarely that tidy.
Real life is also rarely as wholesome as “Bohemian Rhapsody” suggests, especially for a 1970’s rock star. Like a thin stone skipped across a pond, the film lightly touches on the “scandalous” aspects of Mercury’s life, with vague suggestions of drug use and visits to gay sex clubs, but there’s nothing that pushes the boundaries of its PG-13 rating.
While the filmmakers were free to pick and choose events from Mercury’s life to emphasize certain themes and pass over others, you can sense the camera being turned away from anything shocking.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t a complete wash. Rising above the film’s stubborn mediocrity is a terrific performance by Rami Malek (TV’s “Mr. Robot”) as Mercury. As the singer struggles with loneliness, admitting his sexuality and disagreements with his bandmates, Malek gives “Bohemian Rhapsody” the emotional core it otherwise would have lacked.
Before the Live Aid concert, Mercury says to the rest of Queen, “Let’s punch a hole through the roof of the stadium.” When someone says, the stadium doesn’t have a roof, Mercury replies, “Then let’s punch a hole through the sky.” That’s what Malek does as Mercury.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” also paints a beautiful picture of Mercury’s life-long friendship with Mary Austin, Mercury’s girlfriend before he accepts his homosexuality. I often found myself wishing the film had been about their relationship, with Queen happening in the background.
Finally, the production values are solid. The camerawork is rather ordinary for something Singer had a hand in making, but either Singer or his replacement, Dexter Fletcher, knew how to frame Mercury in memorable poses and shoot energetic concert scenes.
After seeing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I watched a video of Queen’s Live Aid concert on YouTube. It was nearly indistinguishable from the film’s depiction.
While the filmmakers deserve kudos for their precision (even the cups of soda and beer on Mercury’s piano appear to be in the same spots), I would have forfeited the entire scene for a movie about Mercury’s life that felt less synthetic.
At least Malek was able to demonstrate why a film about Mercury’s life was worth making and seeing.