Review: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Is No Champion, Even When It Rocks You

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Bohemian Rhapsody, a very conventional music biopic that does a disservice to those wanting more than simply hearing the songs of Queen in a movie theater.

The prospect of seeing a musical biopic covering Freddie Mercury and the band Queen presents an opportunity to watch something truly astonishing. Between Freddie’s complicated life and the genre-defying ambitions of the British rock band, one could hope to see either a riveting character study or a masterful rock opera delving into the details of who Freddie was, what the group was all about, and why each member earned a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Looking at all of this potential is why Bohemian Rhapsody is a massively disappointing film that wastes an opportunity to do anything more than find excuses to play Queen songs in between the incredibly flat and by-the-numbers portrayal of Queen’s rise to fame and Freddie’s personal life.

Honestly, in a post-Walk Hard world, how does a film like Bohemian Rhapsody happen? The way this film is structured feels like a Mad Libs approach to making a music biopic, and that just isn’t cutting it for me in 2018. We’ve seen so many biopics of famous musicians at this point, that it’s hard to look at this film and take it seriously. Of course, knowing that Sacha Baron Cohen was among the many actors and directors looking to make something far more interesting out of Freddie’s story than a standard biopic, it seems easy enough to place the blame at the hands of executive producers and consultants Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen.

There is a part of me that understands why this film has arrived in the shape it is in. There’s an audience out there that loves Queen but is happier just reliving them through their songs, with a minimal fuss about the actual band and their lives. That’s a shallow way to see things, but if someone wants a PG-13 jukebox movie with some decent performances, there’s a movie here for them. To that degree, Bohemian Rhapsody works to about the same extent as the box office hit The Greatest Showman. The difference there is the music.

Where The Greatest Showman had characters you (basically) never met before and new songs to hear for the first time, Bohemian Rhapsody is a film featuring some of the most famous rock songs ever made. Moreover, it’s not exactly hard to get an audience pumped by hearing a Queen song, so does this movie deserve much credit for making those sequences work? Wayne’s World managed to do it, and all that film needed was four guys in a car. Watching Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury lip synch Queen songs in front of a vast, computer-generated audience only goes so far to me, if there’s not more to back it up.

Getting into the actual story, all the greatest hits are here. We see the unglamorous life of Freddie Mercury aka Farrokh Bulsara before he was famous. Freddie meets one of the loves of his life, Mary (Lucy Boynton), right before teaming up with the band formerly known as Smile. His new and different style brings the group bigger audiences and record deal opportunities. Life takes its toll on Freddie, causing drama between him and the rest of the band. There’s an eventual riff so severe that Queen isn’t together for a while, only to lead to getting back together and one legendary performance to wrap everything up by the end (1985’s Live Aid). During all this time, we see moments when the band came up with some of their most memorable singles.

This is good enough, I suppose, for an old-fashioned biopic. It’s trite and not nearly as interesting as something more ambitious, such as Love & Mercy or 24 Hour Party People, but one could see this as serviceable. That in mind, Bohemian Rhapsody gets even more of a glare from me for essentially lying to the audience in favor of putting on such a fanciful version of this story. For example, the supposed “break up” scene is pretty ridiculous, as it stems from Freddie going solo, which is something Brian May and John Deacon had already done, and yet here the film is treating Freddie like he was an outcast from the group. The disingenuous notion that he’d be begging his way back into the band is just ludicrous.

Even worse is the messaging and framing of this film. The Live Aid performance bookends Bohemian Rhapsody, and while the final 15-minute portion of this movie devoted to that performance is a lot of fun to watch, it feels odd having the film add an extra layer by once again lying to the audience about its significance. With the film attempting to embrace Freddie’s personal life, his AIDS diagnosis becomes a big deal. The problem is, the film claims Freddie to have been diagnosed with AIDS and shared that information with his bandmates, leading into Live Aid, despite actual reality, where Freddie was diagnosed two years after the concert. You can call that nit-picking, but I call that a film not finding a creative way to construct a better narrative around these people.

Do the actors do their job? Sure. Malek is terrific at playing this film’s version of Freddie Mercury. It’s a bit much watching him try to manage the fake teeth he’s working with, and much like Chadwick Boseman with James Brown in the underrated Get On Up, it’s not exactly easy for an actor to convincingly channel the stage presence of one of the wildest performers of their time, but there’s good work being done. Boynton is also fine doing as much as she can in the former girlfriend role. Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joseph Mazzello are as convincing as can be pretending to play Queen songs as the other band mates, with bonus points for all the 70s/80s hair between them.

Still, there is a sore spot in this area as well, as the film is all over the place when it comes to what it wants to do with the characters. Allen Leech plays the incredibly underwritten Paul Prenter, Freddie’s personal manager, who is introduced with such an obvious antagonistic slant from the get-go that one can only wonder how this movie could span ten years without anyone ever calling this guy out. Even worse is seeing how the film uses him as a means to send a confusing message over how Freddie’s sexuality affected him, while, apparently, the other members of Queen were the only rock stars ever, in the history of rock and roll, to not participate in parties and a similar sense of hard living. Again, Queen’s involvement in the production of this film certainly had an impact.

All of this hurts, given the potential of the film. Director Bryan Singer, who was fired from Bohemian Rhapsody for bad behavior on set and not showing up for days at a time, must have had some vision for the film, but it feels about as unremarkably put together as his last couple of X-Men movies. That comes all the way down to Singer’s continued collaboration with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who gives this film a glossy, fake look, particularly in outdoor scenes that may as well have billboards with the words, “green screen,” on them. For the record, Eddie the Eagle’s Dexter Fletcher came on board to finish the film after Singer was fired, and while his contributions are far from noticeable, the teaser for his 2019 Elton John biopic, Rocketman, at least looks to have some inspired visuals in it.

When Bohemian Rhapsody opens and brings in the truckloads of money it is sure to generate; I can only hope audiences see what a missed opportunity this film is. Yes, it’s fun to hear Queen songs, and the Live Aid-focused ending will undoubtedly provide a massive high for those just wanting an excuse to listen to Queen songs in a movie theater, but Freddie and Queen deserve better. Not necessarily a dark and depressing look at Freddie’s career (I did mention the potential of a rock opera at the beginning of this review), but something that doesn’t feel like his Wikipedia page with a splash of color on top. I would have liked to see a killer queen movie, but Bohemian Rhapsody bit the dust.

4
Poor
Written by
Aaron is a movie fanatic and loves talking about such things…a lot. He is from Orange County, California, but earned a degree or two at UC Santa Barbara. He describes himself as a film reviewer, writer, podcaster, video game player, comic book reader, disc golfer, and a lefty. His mind is full of film knowledge and random trivia, but he is always open to learning more, whether it’s through box office stats, reviewing Blu-rays from The Criterion Collection or simply hearing first hand from filmmakers and others about various productions and behind-the-scenes tidbits.

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