Walk Hard so successfully and hysterically skewered the music biopic back in December 2007 that one would hope that it inspired the makes of future music biopics to show more creativity in how they presented the lives of famous musicians. Sadly, that Jake Kasdan directorial effort ended up as a box office misfire in its initial theatrical release before becoming a cult classic and that means, aside from occasional far better than expected entries like Straight Outta Compton or Love & Mercy, music biopics have mostly stayed the same in the last decade or so. This trend extends to Bohemian Rhapsody, a music biopic of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen that falls prey to the worst elements that can crop up in these music biopics while also finding time to inject its own unique flaws into the proceedings.
Coming from director Bryan Singer, the visionary auteur behind X-Men: Apocalypse, Bohemian Rhapsody’s plot follows Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) from the first time he met his fellow Queen band members, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) all the way up to their Live Aid performance in the 1980’s. During this film, all the typical plot points that show up in musical biopics get presented in insultingly lazy fashion. Bohemian Rhapsody takes one of the greatest bands of all-time, one that pushed so many boundaries and then proceeds to just make the most paint-by-numbers movie imaginable about them.
That means we get tidy explanations for how they met, where a bunch of their songs came from and an all too predictable plot thread involving Freddie Mercury’s own personal problems escalating to the point that the band breaks up for a bit, all of them depicted in such a perfunctory fashion devoid of personality or creativity. Other staples of the music biopic, including a nefarious record producer played by Mike Myers who bellows out overly obvious lines of dialogue proclaiming that Queen will never make it (sadly, he never asks someone to leave his swamp), also transpire in similarly lazy ways. Even the song choices are pretty banal as only the six or seven most famous Queen songs get trotted out for obvious needle drops. The least this anemic movie could have done was expose audiences to more obscure but no less quality Queen tunes!
Instead of considering more creative Queen songs it can employ, Bohemian Rhapsody is too busy trying to convince the audience that the various members of Queen are “a family”. In one of the most puzzling narrative decisions in the entire motion picture, none of the members of Queen that aren’t Freddie Mercury are given a distinct personality (I had to use their individual hairstyles to tell them apart!). The other three Queen members just linger in the background to either say “Freddie Mercury is awesome!” or “Freddie Mercury is troubled!”, there’s not even attempts to flesh the non-Freddie Mercury members of the band out as human beings. This means that the numerous time’s the feature tries to wring pathos out of characters claiming that the members of Queen are like a family, it rings as outrageously hollow as when El Diablo called the fellow supervillains he’d known for a day family in Suicide Squad.
Another odd detail keeping one from getting invested in this film’s version of the various members of Queen is that they use old audio of folks like Freddie Mercury singing instead of just having the cast members doing their own renditions of the tune. The audio that’s used is always the audio from the final versions of the songs Queen puts it out, meaning that when this movies version of Freddie Mercury is just trying out some lyrics for a new song while playing the piano, he does while singing a distractingly polished version of the tune he just came up with. All of a sudden, I get taken out of the movie and a key opportunity to connect with this movie’s characters is lost forever like a pebble tossed into the ocean. Between the overly clean audio the characters always sing in and the fact that so much of the dialogue is about how awesome Queen is, Bohemian Rhapsody begins to feel less like a character study of famous individuals and instead comes off as much of an advertisement for Queen as The Internship was an advertisement for Google.
That’s a small detail that, when combined with the artificial looking sets and costumes, ends up making the world of Bohemian Rhapsody and its characters nearly impossible to get invested in. As if all that wasn’t off-putting enough on its own, the movie’s treatment of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality will certainly do the trick. Specifically, the decision to have Freddie Mercury acting more and more overtly stereotypically gay be used as a shorthand signifier for him going off the rails. The more explicitly gay Mercury is, the more the film sees him as troubled. The visual of Mercury wandering around a gay club is played off as a tragic moment of debauchery in one of Bohemian Rhapsody’s numerous instances of using any instance of Mercury’s not being heterosexual as shorthand for “This Is Bad!”, which is certainly a creative decision to make on a Freddie Mercury movie, yes sir.
What about Rami Malek though, the guy tasked with playing this troublesome (at best) portrait of Freddie Mercury? Well, Malek is good in the role, he’s trying as hard as he can to do something with this part and he does an excellent job being the spitting image of Mercury when he’s depicting his characters on-stage physicality. Really, Malek is only held back by a script that never wants to examine the character in a thoughtful manner, Bohemian Rhapsody is so content to play it safe it never gives Malek juicy material that the actor is clearly more than up for. Malek is the best thing here but like far too much in Bohemian Rhapsody, he’s never used to his fullest potential. The highest compliment I can pay this whole creatively stagnant exercise is that it’s nice to hear what Queen songs sound like coming out of movie theater speakers, but if all it took to make memorable cinema was to do a Queen needle drop, then the end of Mars Needs Moms! would be considered an all-time great movie ending.