I’ve rated Bohemian Rhapsody three stars for each reason you absolutely should see this movie: the performances, the surprisingly effective recontextualization of established Queen songs (as both a plus and a negative), and for being a perfectly serviceable introduction to the legend of Farrokh Bulsara, a.k.a. Freddie Mercury. Beyond this, there are serious problems with the film, the majority of which lies in screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s reshuffling of events in a barefaced attempt to emotionally manipulate us into thinking this film is a more emotional experience than it is.
There’s not much you won’t find outside of articles in rock magazines like Creem or Rolling Stone; truth be told, Queen’s Wikipedia article carries more of a story than this film does. Bohemian Rhapsody seems to be targeted toward people whose only Queen album in their record collection is the 1991 “Absolute Greatest” compilation, and the generations of earbud-wearing iTunes youngsters who might’ve heard a song with some guys singing “WE WILL, WE WILL ROCK YOU!” being repeated over a stomp-stomp-CLAP beat at a hockey game. (Or football. Or whatever sportsball you prefer. Hooray sportsing!)
The film doesn’t go as deep as it should for both an emotional and educational purpose, instead focusing only on the superficial, shoehorning all of Queen’s pivotal moments into one easily-digestible narrative. Which winds up being all right, as it gets you interested in Queen’s story. The barely-scratching-the-surface nature of this film has already got me looking back in my music collection and on YouTube for interviews with Freddie Mercury to divine truth from fiction. Nothing about this film is revelatory; some of it forsakes truth for visual conjecture, such as the depiction of a room full of raucous, foot-stomping people recording “We Will Rock You” when documented fact says it was just the four band members and a tape machine.
Rami Malek gives a head-turning performance as Mercury, taking us from his nascent beginnings as a step-in vocalist for Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor’s (Ben Hardy) band Smile to his stratospheric rise as rock’s premier frontman. Malek channels Mercury’s energy and zest, making Mercury into a strutting, drawling peacock who demands to be the center of attention wherever he goes. The magnetism Mercury was most known for shines through with Malek’s expressive body and face in every scene, whether it’s full of quiet contemplation or at his manic best, surrounded by a screaming morass of people, either friendly or antagonistic.
It’s Mercury’s film from balls to bone, finding him first as a baggage handler subjected to ridicule about his heritage (he’s called “Paki” several times) and his teeth (he has four extra incisors, which, according to him, allow him extra vocal range). Meeting May and Taylor after Smile loses their bassist/vocalist to a band called Humpy Bong, they’re enraptured with Mercury’s high-flying presence combined with his note-perfect delivery of one of Smile’s songs. They quickly find bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and form a four-piece, with Mercury creating the iconic logo which would serve Queen to the present day.
The film plays like the rock music version of Dexter Fletcher’s Eddie the Eagle, in that we’re shown our subjects at their best and their worst, working toward early triumph and falling apart at a predictable moment before a manufactured stunt brings it all back together. Notably, Fletcher was asked to take over directing duties on Bohemian Rhapsody due to credited director Bryan Singer’s absenteeism and personal issues. In overseeing the final product, Fletcher almost copies Eddie the Eagle’s vibe note-for-note, right down to the way Mercury is treated by his parents (his dad tries too hard to keep him grounded while his mother encourages his expression). Only this time, the film’s subjects aren’t just aiming to stand up and be counted; they’re going to be rock gods in an industry seemingly incapable of limiting their artistic innovation or their frontman’s whimsy.
The line between truth and legend is conflated and subsequently erased in an effort to evoke an emotional response to the drama surrounding the band. While the film opens and closes with their Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium (a performance which has been called their greatest), new subtext and a layer of melancholy is added by the interpolation of events which take place after this. Namely, Mercury’s disclosure to the rest of the band regarding his HIV-positive status. As he wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until 1987, it turns their triumphant Live Aid performance into blatant emotional blackmail, even going so far as to cut two of their songs – “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “We Will Rock You” – from the reenactment of this electrifying performance to attach further finality to Mercury’s sung lyrics.
It’s deceptive and off-putting, and the film suffers for reducing this pinnacle performance to a mere attempt at coaxing tears from the audience. Yes, it’s meant to end Bohemian Rhapsody on a high note as opposed to sticking to the historical timeline, which would leave us with Mercury’s slide into illness and death. Even the written epilogue cards provide a measure of hope for the future and for those suffering from AIDS, as Bohemian Rhapsody wants us to believe in its message of rising above the elements which hold you back or destroy you.
For the most part, it succeeds, mainly through propping up the differences between virtue and vice in Mercury’s life. We see representations of virtue in his family, his bandmates, his best friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), and a potential love interest in Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). “Come see me when you’re happy with yourself,” Jim tells him, encouraging Mercury to drop his frivolous pretenses and be honest with who he is. On the other side of the coin are the people who want to puppeteer him for their own ends, mostly personified by Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), one of Queen’s managers. He soon becomes Mercury’s handler who guides him further down the roads of excess, making every attempt to cut him off from the rest of the band.
Yup, it’s that kind of movie – a group of friends and their loved ones enjoy success, but there’s always someone who’s got to isolate the star and bend him to their will, and we know how movies of this ilk go. The trouble is: that’s what middling movies do, and it’s a little offensive this treatment has been given to a band as iconic as Queen, a band which has earned its place in history by decisively NOT being middling. Freddie Mercury and Queen gave their music over 100% of their all; anything less just isn’t befitting them, which is where we wind up with Bohemian Rhapsody. We’re given some landmarks of their career – the inception and recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the aforementioned Live Aid show, Mercury’s tumultuous tabloid life, among others – but the film goes no further than these recognizable, easily-accessible moments. Figuratively, we’ve got a collection of their radio hits without the spice and balance of their deep cuts.
If the goal was to keep it a lighthearted, family-friendly comedy-drama serving as an appetizer to the smorgasbord of Queen’s extensive, diverse catalog, then this works. Through this film’s sanitized lens, we’re meant to look at Freddie Mercury’s life as an example of living to your fullest, risks and naysayers be damned, which is commendable. Malek, Lee, Hardy, and Mazzello share a heartwarming chemistry together; Lee’s grounding presence contrasts well with Malek’s flamboyance, Hardy’s uptightness, and Mazzello’s nonchalance. Even in scenes full of tension and anger, there are laughs and smiles to be found among these four, and they’re a delight to watch. Their relationship is not borne of the ugly or the salacious; it’s rooted, like we are as an audience, in respect, love, and sometimes, awe.