Queen is such a powerhouse in rock history and Freddie Mercury such an artistic luminary that the mere representation of the band’s energy and impact makes Bohemian Rhapsody—an otherwise dull, by-the-numbers, mostly lifeless music biopic—tolerable, and even mildly effective at times. There are some individual moments and elements to like here, but taken as a whole, Bohemian Rhapsody is mostly a flatline with occasional blips of life here and there—and not nearly enough to bring the whole body back from the dead.
The film’s obvious piece de resistance is Rami Malek’s transcendent performance as Freddie Mercury. Malek’s was far from an easy task. Mercury’s public persona was one of a larger-than-life, boisterous voice, literally and figuratively. Yet he was known to have an introverted, melancholic personality in private, even when throwing lavish parties as attempts to find some form of an intimate connection with his surroundings. To successfully deliver a performance marked by such contrasts without coming across as gimmicky requires an agility that’s very tricky to accomplish, and Malek passes that test with flying colors.
More important than his technical prowess, Malek strikes what might be be described as the perfect spiritual tone in capturing Mercury’s passion for connecting intimately with his fans, the kind of connection he struggled to find in real life. His singular presence seems to capture Mercury’s soul—or at least our sense of what he must have been like—even as the painfully formulaic movie that surrounds him undermines the achievement. During a series of quick scenes that depict how “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a track that changed the face of rock forever, was recorded, Malek’s Mercury keeps exhorting his bandmates—“More passion!” “More feeling!” It’s as if we’re watching Malek himself begging the movie to match his emotional dedication and receiving very little back in the process.
Those moments that capture Queen’s innovative spirit as the band refused to be pegged to a particular genre or formula create some amusing and inspirational scenes, such as when it shows “Bohemian Rhapsody” the song being pieced together. As Mercury, Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazello) put together some of their biggest hits, there is a potent chemistry between the actors and Queen’s attempts to find new ways to bond with their audience.
Still, as far as the overall structure goes, it’s basically Walk Hard without the parody or the jokes. It takes a particular set of balls to non-ironically string together the same exact formula more than ten years after Jake Kasdan’s underrated comedy classic skewered it. There’s the poor, hopeful young man no one in the family believes in (Mercury’s father, played by Ace Bhatti, does double-duty here as both the “The wrong kid died” father as well as the “You’ll never make it” wife from Walk Hard.) There is the moment (and montages) when the band is picked up by a label and the touring begins. (We get not one, but two “Look at all those cities they visit!” montages.) Then comes the megastardom and the loneliness from that megastardom that turns into rambunctious partying and drug use. (All that’s missing is Mercury looking at the camera and saying, “This is a dark period.”) Finally, there is the bottoming out, and the triumphant comeback. Perhaps some of Bohemian Rhapsody’s over-reliance on formula can be blamed on behind-the-scenes turmoil, which culminated in director Bryan Singer leaving the project due to accusations of past sexual assaults. Or maybe the formula was just too tempting to deviate from—Hollywood does love a good formula, after all.
That rousing triumphant comeback finale is of course the Live Aid performance. The film recreates almost the entire 20-minute performance, with the camera capturing the moment’s grandeur via sweeping shots of the massive audience as well as intimate details of the performance in a way the video set up in 1985 could not.
Thanks to this finale and Malek’s overall dedication to the part, Bohemian Rhapsody may provide some inspiration and satisfaction for Queen fans, though those who admire Mercury as an LGBTQ figure may well be annoyed at how the film downplays Mercury’s sexuality in favor of his closeted but giving relationship with Mary Austin, played (Lucy Boynton). For everyone else, Bohemian Rhapsody’s formulaic approach may prove far duller than Mercury ever was.
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Gwilym Lee, Mike Myers, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander
Release Date: November 2, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.