Every year around autumn, we get a string of biopics that feel tailor-made for the leading man to get buzz even if the movie surrounding him is garbage and his performance doesn’t save it. (Less frequent — big-budget biopics about women where the same rule applies, but they do exist).
Bohemian Rhapsody, the long-awaited take on the (now classic) rock band Queen and its legendary frontman Freddie Mercury, is that such biopic for 2018 and it’s the essence of a quickly forgotten moon-launch performance by a niche actor in a poorly constructed, factually challenged biography.
I hated Bohemian Rhapsody, and I hated just about everything in it.
The script, written by Andrew McCarten, is nothing but a rote procession of famous events that have significance to Queen fans — mostly because they’re the “origin stories” for most of the band’s famous hits. The first half of the movie is essentially drama-free as the band mostly gets along, the script afraid to make any one of the men involved look like a jerk.
Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) are all treated with respect but take a good hour to become actual characters. Mercury, too, suffers the same problem: McCarten starts the men out not as confident boys making their way through the rock industry but as legends at birth. McCarten wrote last year’s equally dull Darkest Hour, so … not surprising. It’s just a lousy first hour, watching as years in the lives of these men are condensed into incoherent evenings, as the genesis of their songs are carefully choreographed to make sure each musician is shown writing a famous hit.
It’s not for me to say whether Bohemian Rhapsody handles Mercury’s sexuality in an honest and forthright fashion, but it’s noticeable how sterile the movie itself is and it lacks any of the flair found in Queen’s performances or Mercury’s personality. The blame for that probably falls on director Bryan Singer, who has never known flair in his entire career. Singer’s personal life or on-set behavior aside (he was fired a few weeks before the end of principal photography), the movie sure feels like his most recent output — too damn long, too damn drab, lacking in wit or vision. To call this workmanlike is to insult people who put in good, average work. This doesn’t even match that level.
It is strange, however, that Mercury’s only romantic or sexual relationships with men are depicted as furtive or negative for almost the entire running time.
On Remi Malek: I wasn’t a fan of Mr. Robot (his hit TV series), but I liked Malek in it and here you can see the amount of time and effort he put into capturing Mercury’s physicality. I think the dentures they gave him to mimic Mercury’s famous mouth shape look kind of silly and distract from close-ups, but that’s just me. The effort is there. Malek does, later in the film, disappear into the character for a time. But only in bursts. Only in moments.
The movie is bookended by the band’s famous appearance at Live Aid. In choosing to use that as the “high-note ending,” McCarten is forced to condense Mercury’s diagnosis and life with AIDS into a chronology that does not reflect real life. Worse, McCarten also decides it was that morning of the concert on which Mercury:
- Finally asked out Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), his long-term guy on the side who gets complete short shrift;
- Introduced Jim to his conservative parents
- Reconciled with his conservative parents;
- Played at Live Aid.
While a biopic doesn’t need to be anal-retentive about chronology, in this case it just feels silly — Even more so given that it makes Hutton a footnote in Mercury’s life.
What does a biopic aim to accomplish? Fundamentally a biopic, at best, isn’t a documentary but rather a document that allows the legends and myths surrounding a person to fold back inward on their life. It’s a way of consolidating a biography into a series of statements about what the subject ultimately meant to his or her audience, using facts from their real life. I thought last year’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a movie that took tremendous liberties, was a shockingly great example of this principle.
Bohemian Rhapsody never manages to really figure out what it wants to convey about Queen besides, “Hey, you remember this song? You like this song, right? Right?” It never captures what made Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor special. It never really engages with their music or their image. It’s one thing for May to proudly say at their first business meeting with future manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen) that “Queen is music by outcasts for outcasts” (paraphrasing), but it’s another to show it, and Bohemian Rhapsody simply doesn’t have the patience or heart to do so.
Suggestion: Watch the actual Live Aid performance here and if you wonder how Singer and company capture the characters with actors, just watch the trailer. It shows you the whole thing anyway.