A biopic, in November? Groundbreaking. It wouldn’t be Oscar Season without at least one dramatic and triumphant tale of a famous figure. This year’s subject: Freddie Mercury and Queen, charting his rise, fall, and come back in Bohemian Rhapsody. When the first glimpses of Rami Malek as Mercury came out, audiences were intrigued by Malek’s uncanny resemblance to the Rockstar. Unfortunately, the super-talented lead has not saved this film from being paint-by-numbers and disappointingly unimaginative.
Let’s take a moment to talk about Malek, as he is by far the best part of the movie. Known for his role as the cagey, brilliant, and depressed Elliott in Mr. Robot, this was a huge departure for him. As is common in biopics, his love and respect for Mercury shone through and added a lot to the movie. He was fearless in his depiction, going all-in on the larger than life figure. One highlight comes in the form of the opening sequence, which takes place the day of Live Aid. In slow motion, Malek goes through his morning, arrives at Wembley Stadium, and prepares to step out onto stage. In those few moments, he manages to convey Mercury’s fiery personality to perfection.
The opening scene is so good that when a slightly abridged version comes around again at the end after we’ve watched Queen’s rise and fall, there’s something missing. It feels flatter, perhaps because of the pacing or the lack of atmosphere. Towards the end, as Queen rehearses for Live Aid, Malek delivers his strongest work within the film. Telling his Queen bandmates of his personal demons, Malek proclaims that he doesn’t want to be their poster boy, their cautionary tale, and that he’s going to spend all the time he has left being a performer. Seconds spent crying are seconds wasted and he doesn’t have any left to waste.
Bohemian Rhapsody, at its core, is a story about and a celebration of Mercury’s life, not of his death. It was a bold choice to end the film on the World Aid performance, rather than show his ailing health and eventual death. While we applaud that decision, it was just about the only one the film actually made. For the difficult and touchy subject matter of the AIDS epidemic and homophobia in America, the film doesn’t have much of a point of view at all. As such, it leaves a lot up to the imagination, which would be fine if it was a little bit clearer what we were supposed to be imagining. Did Mercury follow the man into the men’s room? Was he sleeping with men before Mary Austin confronted him about it? We have no idea.
Ironically, the tagline, “the music you know, the story you don’t,” is contrary to the way the film plays out. It requires a lot of previous knowledge to be able to follow it. Sure, most everyone knows a bit about who Mercury was, what he was about. Still, to expect the audience to know how events in Mercury’s life unfolded, so that it can skip over them, strikes me as too much.
The film falls into a common trap in biopics. Bohemian Rhapsody tries to cram too much into its 2-hour-and-15-minute runtime. It ends up with messy writing and an uneventful first act that could probably have been condensed if we had entered the film when Queen released their first big hit. Things pick up and become more interesting in act two, but it would’ve benefited from covering a much smaller stretch of time and focusing its energy on Mercury as a character because he certainly is an engaging one. Instead, it just charts the ups and downs of Queen’s career, throwing in his personal struggles as an aside. It’s disappointing, because Malek would’ve knocked some deeper writing out of the park if he had been given a chance.
For what it’s worth, the film does provide some good comic relief in its cheeky dialogue. The music is (obviously) incredible. They mashed up Malek’s voice with a legendary Queen cover artist and the result is very convincing. There’s a sweetness in the portrayal of Austin and Mercury, and between the members of Queen. Clearly, everyone who worked on this film holds a huge amount of reverence for the band and what they did for modern music. There’s a swell of emotion in the final scene at Wembley that’s done really well. Unsurprisingly, it’s a little bit undercut by the credits, which, would you believe, include actual footage of the actual band performing. Mind-blowing.
Overall, this is a good film, just not a great film or one becoming of the subject matter. It was awesome to see Malek step outside of his typical character, though the writing didn’t give him much. Unless you’re a huge Queen fan, I wouldn’t recommend spending money on it. In a year it’ll be on TV constantly, and you should catch it then.
Dir: Bryan Singer
Prd: Graham King, Jim Beach
Scr: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy
DOP: Newton Thomas Sigel
Editor: John Ottman
Runtime: 134 minutes