I’ve always liked Queen, my first real exposure to the band — outside of the obvious radio staples, of course — having been their soundtrack to 1986’s Highlander, a VHS tape that was in heavy rotation throughout my youth. That said, I was no superfan, and my general awareness of frontman Freddie Mercury’s raucous lifestyle and untimely death from AIDS was limited to whatever media coverage (that I largely ignored) on the event of his passing. So I can’t say definitively that director Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody is factually inaccurate, but I can say unequivocally that it feels disingenuous. So if all you want out of this film is 40 minutes of Queen covers couched in 134 minutes of sanitized sanctimony, well, you’ve got it. But anyone hoping for something more revelatory or personal will come away disappointed.
Mercury’s debauched lifestyle is the stuff of legends, but those who might arrive for Bohemian Rhapsody in complete ignorance of those biographical details will leave wondering what all the fuss is about. This is largely due to the film’s PG-13 rating, but it also appears to have something to do with surviving band members trying to protect their reputations (guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor are credited as producers). In fact, there are plausible claims that May and Taylor shut down director Stephen Frears’ competing production, which was to have starred Sacha Baron Cohen and would have carried a hard R rating, by refusing to license Queen’s music for the film. It’s tempting to speculate on how much more interesting that project might have been, but Bohemian Rhapsody is what we’re left with, so that’s all that I can review.
For the record, Rami Malek’s performance as Mercury is every bit as good as you may have heard. His voice and mannerisms are uncannily accurate at times, and he carries the film admirably. But the film itself fails to rise to his level, and Singer’s distinctly deficient stylistic choices are often jarring. He employs every tired trope of the music biopic subgenre and still manages to outdo his egregious shortcomings by incorporating kitschy intertitles into his compulsory tour montage. Lest you think I’m being too hard on Singer, remember that he was fired from the film two weeks before production wrapped for repeatedly failing to come to the set. Just keep in mind the next time you’re driving to your own — almost certainly less lucrative — 9-to-5 grind, that a man paid millions of dollars to helm this film couldn’t be bothered to show up to work.
Of course, film is a collaborative medium, so Singer can’t shoulder the blame singlehandedly. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s narrative is drowning in cliche and lazy, deus-ex-machina story beats. And that’s not even considering the ways in which the script elides any real depiction of Mercury’s homosexuality, constantly implying what should be openly stated. So what we have here is a strong central performance and a soundtrack that would be all but impossible to screw up, overshadowed by an overstuffed exercise in rote predictability and edge-softening condescension. To paraphrase the titular track, I sometimes wish Bohemian Rhapsody had never been born at all.