Sometimes I think it’s important to lay one’s biases right out when they start to talk about movies, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have some biases about the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. I certainly wasn’t opposed to the very idea of a Queen biopic, I like that band as much as the next guy and I’m not completely allergic to musical biopics like some people are but when the movie came out in late October it was completely panned by the critics and I had much more important things to see and I felt pretty comfortable skipping it. Then it just kind of never went away. The thing became a ginormous hit at the box office despite everyone in the film world having nothing nice to say about it and it somehow managed to become a big awards contender and despite having not seen it I sort of went along with my critical brethren in trashing each and every organization that thought it appropriate to treat this thing like one of the year’s best. That instinct probably reached its pinnacle on the night of the Golden Globes when the movie shockingly won the Best Motion Picture Drama award and I responded with some rather rude tweets including “they must have straight up been smoking crack” and “The #HFPA is basic as fuck.” I don’t exactly regret the tone of those tweets so much as the fact that I was talking about a movie without having seen it (for the record, both sentiments also apply to the night’s other big winner Green Book, which I had seen). So, with the not at all loaded mission of wanting to be able to trash something with more credibility I used my newly acquired AMC Stubs A-List membership to go see the damn movie, and while I certainly had my biases against it I also kind of had a sinking suspicion that with expectations so low I might have ended up pleasantly surprised.
The story of Queen begins when a young baggage handler named Farrokh Bulsara, who would soon come to be known as Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), caught up with a bar band called Smile right as their bassist/lead singer had given up and quit the band. Seeing the potential in the group he convinces the remaining guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Tayler (Ben Hardy) to let him join them as the new lead singer. After hiring a new bassist named John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) and touring extensively the group decides to make an album. Meanwhile Mercury has been starting a relationship with a woman named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) who he seems to have a deep and abiding love for but there always seems to be something between them keeping the relationship from completely working, what could that possibly be?
The element at the center of this film is of course Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury, which has gotten a lot of acclaim even from people who dislike the film. He does indeed to a pretty good job of looking like Mercury for most of the movie and he can certainly lip-sych like a pro (the singing is provided by archival recordings), but I wasn’t overly impressed by the speaking voice he mustered for most of the movie. If you look up some old Freddie Mercury interviews you find he didn’t really sound that much like what Malek is trying to sell here and even if he did Malek just generally seems to be struggling with trying to perform while using the voice and there are some questionable line readings in the movie. The rest of the cast is serviceable. This is clearly a movie that’s primarily about Mercury for obvious reasons, though you do get the impression that the surviving band members are calling some of the shots as there is a suspiciously large focus on making the audience very aware of the fact that some of the other band members are responsible for writing a lot of the band’s hits.
The central sin of Bohemian Rhapsody is that it is absolutely slavish to the rock biopic formula as lampooned by the movie Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story. You’ve got the “I’m going to think back on my life before a performance” trope, the pop psychology about the artist’s childhood, the record exec who doesn’t get what they’re doing because they’re so ahead of their time, the record studio montages, and of course the “it used to be about the music, man!” segment. To some extent a lot of this stuff is unavoidable in a biopic which isn’t doing some sort of avant garde I’m Not There experiment and I don’t expect every movie like this to subvert all of them but this movie really shamelessly leans into the formula without doing anything to bring any originality to the proceedings. The film also really distorts a lot of facts about the band in order to fit this formula. Much of the film’s second (and weakest) half revolves around Freddie Mercury’s supposed abandonment of the band in the early 80s to pursue a solo career and to pursue hedonism. This version of the narrative rather conveniently ignores the fact that this supposed hiatus only lasted two years, that Brian May and Roger Taylor both released solo projects before Mercury did, and that the band had already reunited, released an album, and gone on a tour before they performed at Live Aid.
Of course all movies based on true events take some creative license but there are ways to use creative license for good and ways to use it for bad. Here the liberties they take generally just served the purpose of making the movie more clichéd and predictable. There is of course also the matter of how the film depicts Mercury’s sexuality. Now, the film doesn’t necessarily hesitate in depicting Mercury as a gay man, something it might have done if it had been made some twenty years earlier, but in some ways what it does do is more insidious. As I mentioned this movie follows the rock biopic formula to a T and these rock biopics almost always reach a point where the lead singer becomes full of himself and starts destroying the band, usually by falling into drugs and alcohol. That happens here too, but instead of drug addiction the thing that starts happening to Mercury at this point in the story is that he starts fully embracing his sexuality and engaging with the gay community. Yes, he’s also said to be taking drugs during this section but that is deemphasized here and it almost feels like the movie is equating homosexuality itself with self-destruction to the point where all the references to gayness in the script could have been replaced with references to drugs and the story would have basically been unaltered. The presence of Jim Hutton, Mercury’s boyfriend in his later years mitigates this a little, but if they’d been more honest about this relatively healthy relationship which began long before Live-Aid and before Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis the structure and framing would have been a lot less problematic.
So did I hate Bohemian Rhapsody? Nah, it plays things a little too safe to really become something worth hating. It also has one major and rather obvious asset: it has a lot of Queen music in it. It will be a surprise to no one that Queen was a pretty damn good rock band and even knowing that it’s just a lip-synch show there is obvious entertainment value in seeing the scenes of the band performing these songs, especially if you’re watching them on a very large screen and with a really aggressive sound system. Aside from a stretch leading up to the Live Aid performance at the end the movie is mostly pretty well paced ad often has a sense of humor about itself. What I’m trying to say is that as corny as the film is at times there are worse ways to spend two hours in a theater, and while I don’t respect the movie at all I don’t have much ill-will for it either… at least I wouldn’t if not for the fact that some people have apparently blown the film’s positive qualities way out of proportion and are trying to give it a bunch of awards it plainly doesn’t deserve, but when you have low expectations like I did and you keep things in perspective there is guilty pleasure to be derived from this thing.
**1/2 out of Five