Back when the Freddie Mercury biopic was originally being planned and Sasha Baron Cohen was cast I was thrilled at the possibilities, not only to get a better look at the rise and fall of one of rock’s most charismatic and gifted performers but to see Cohen in full on dramatic mode, to see him disappear into a role that he seemed destined for, and more likely than not make a run at a golden statue. However, creative differences surfaced between Cohen, who wanted to tell a gritty, realistic story about the troubled, quixotic lead singer, and the surviving band members of Queen, who wanted a safer, more family friendly depiction of the band’s journey to success. The result is exactly what I was afraid it would be. The trouble with removing the warts and scars and bruises from a biographical film is that what you end up with is just a story about how cool everybody was, and that absence of fidelity to real life is where Bohemian Rhapsody falls short, again and again.
On the one hand it’s nice to see a movie about a band that gives a fair shake to the entire group, akin to Almost Famous, that shows some of the complicated dynamics of four grown adults making music songs for a living. But this film, with creative input and consultation from guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, is conspicuously unbalanced in favor of the rest of the band who frequently appear as only reasonable, patient, and talented throughout. Granted, Mercury’s excessive lifestyle and personality contributed to the drama and publicity the band received, but to pretend that the other members of the band brought none of their own shit to the table is simply disingenuous. If you’re going to suggest a film that represents the whole band with equal consideration but depict only the late singers demons with any substance, you’ve lost all artistic integrity right out of the gate. What remains is a story where May and Taylor appear to be the only adults in the room that Mercury can never tell his side of.
All that aside, Rami Malek is spectacular. Without his… I don’t even know what word to land on to describe his performance, I suppose it’s an energy, a focus, a positively magnetic screen presence Bohemian Rhapsody not only doesn’t get off the ground, it turns into a charming Movie Of The Week. No one else really brings as much veracity to the film, with the possible exception of Alan Leech, but to be fair no one else is asked to carry much water. So the gamble from a script perspective to rely entirely on Malek to elevate a film that is replete with formula and cliche largely pays off,particularly in the final twenty minutes or so, which is also what the movie is clearly banking on.
Speaking of the script, ugh. Anthony McCarten is responsible for both The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, both of which received critical acclaim, however far more than I feel is deserved, particularly for the former. Rhapsody has the same issue as the Stephen Hawking biopic in that McCarten fails to show the progress from failure to success at each step of his subjects journey, instead he skips right to how great they are at everything, which is a little like reading a Wikipedia bio but skipping to the last sentence of each paragraph instead of reading the whole thing through. So instead of showing how Mercury learned to sing and play piano and how he may have converted that into his own musical style, he just knows the band’s music and sings like an angel on his first try. Instead of showing him developing his stage persona, he just goes into a store, buys women’s clothing, and immediately wins over the audience. Skip to a year later. This is not only lazy storytelling, it cheapens the whole experience by not showing how hard earned the success depicted really was.
Ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody is not without quality, and is by all means worth the price of admission. It is also, however, safe and inoffensive on the whole, handling one of the most important and dramatic aspects of Freddie Mercury’s life, his sexuality, with kid gloves, never really exploring either the stigma of homosexuality in that era or the horror of the AIDS epidemic which the film only casually references without an attempt to put a human face on it. That was an attempt to say something positive that was mostly derailed by my previously stated desire for a true, honest biography about a fascinating human being who lived in a bizarre, frightening time, someone who was simultaneously reviled and revered within his own lifetime and was so clearly doing so brilliantly what he was put on this planet to do. Instead we have Bohemian Rhapsody, which feels more like a pretty good cover band; fun, evocative, maybe full of good intentions but not what Freddie Mercury was: the real thing.