Strip away the controversy surrounding Bohemian Rhapsody, and all that’s left is a typical awards-bait biopic that’s not as bad as you’d feared. Nor is it as good as you’d hoped; it just sort of exists, with the occasional inspired moment and plenty of dull passages to fill the space in between those. In many ways, there was never going to be a right way to make a film about a creative, artistic juggernaut like Freddie Mercury, but it’s not unreasonable or unfathomable that someone might at least try. But the film, amidst all its production woes and scandals surrounding its first director, Bryan Singer, has a problem far bigger than any of those, the main reason it never does Mercury any real justice… it just totally lacks imagination.
I suppose I could give you a synopsis, but the long-short of it would always be me just saying it’s basically about Freddie Mercury’s life, starting from the moment he joined the band that would become Queen up until the electric, culturally-significant Live-Aid performance. There’s really no in-between, and that’s already a big problem, but one not inherent to just Bohemian Rhapsody. The biopic is an unwieldy genre in general, and the problem that plagues it is simply that most biopics are made without consideration of the medium they’re being adapted for. There was once somebody I knew who said that not every book could be made into a film. It was impossible, he declared. I countered by saying that it’s simply not true, every book (or really, any source material) can be made into a film, but not every book would make for a very good film. You see, the biggest thing a lot of filmmakers seem to forget about adaptation is that you’re not only trying to wrangle and condense material, but you’re trying to actively change the way we consume that story or property, this time on the big screen, as a motion picture.
Many biopics just aren’t cinematic. They don’t engage like normal filmic stories do. In lieu of something that’s got a clear arc, with emotional beats or introspection that would allow the audience to personally connect to the material, biopics tend to go for a flashy or substantive approach. It’s the kitchen sink problem, where filmmakers are afraid to leave out any shred of historical significance, even if it does the core film no real good, so they just shoehorn it in. Cradle-to-grave biopics can work, mind you, if they’re thematically about the impact of a singular life, for example. But the better biopics tend to be either more fictionalized so they can stand as their own piece of art, or they focus on a very specific, particular thing. In general, I’ve always found biopics really hard to get emotionally invested in, and even my unabashed, deep-seated love for the incredible music of Queen couldn’t change that for Bohemian Rhapsody.
Let’s start with the good, or more specifically, Rami Malek. For no matter how rough the waters get with this biopic, Malek almost singlehandedly rights the ship at several, crucial moments. It’s a transformative performance that doesn’t actually feel as showy or overcooked as you might expect. If those qualities seep in, then it feels apiece with who Mercury was as a human being. He was a great performer, somebody who knew how to command attention and connect with a crowd through his music. Malek nails the body language and the voice almost perfectly. Even when he’s not speaking, and merely reacting to what’s going on around him, it’s hard to keep your eyes off him. Malek’s been winning a lot of awards for his performance, and this is a rare case where he’s deserved just about every single one of them. The script never affords him a deeper introspection of this real-life figure, but Malek somehow finds it for himself.
Really, none of the performances are bad, it’s just that the script doesn’t bother to give anybody else much in the way of an arc or even attention, so they’re all treated as set dressing. That’s a shame, because Lucy Boynton’s Mary Austin could’ve been a real fascinating character if they’d used her more, especially after Mercury professed being gay to her. Boynton, who is quietly building a great career, is such an alluring actress, with her soft, cooing voice and sharp physical features, and like Malek, she finds something more than the writing gives her to work with. Elsewhere, all the actors playing the band members are solid, but they aren’t really given huge personalities, probably in a subconscious attempt to propose that Mercury himself was such a personality, the other band members didn’t need apply. Allen Leech is effectively scummy as Paul Prenter, whose creepy relationship effectively becomes a hostage situation (or at least, that’s the way the film was keen on presenting it) towards the end. And on another positive note, all the period work, from sets to costumes, is pretty spot on, if not exactly noteworthy.
Bohemian Rhapsody‘s biggest crime is its refusal to ever go deeper than the surface. It’s not entirely their fault, I suppose. During one scene, where Mercury writes a piece of music in his room and begins to cry because he is hearing it in his head, it becomes very apparent that no matter how hard anybody tried, it was always going to be impossible to create a film that could get inside the mind of someone as singular as Mercury. But that doesn’t mean the film shouldn’t have tried! And all the pieces are there, from Mercury’s displaced family drama, to his sexuality and eventual struggle with AIDS. It’s as if the filmmakers though it was good enough to just have them crop up occasionally instead of taking the effort to have any sort of perspective on the material.
The Live-Aid performance, while way too long, does reinforce why films like this are appealing. People love Queen, and there’s something special about how a film like this can bring all those disparate fans together to celebrate one of their idols on the screen. Sometimes, I was almost won over by the sheer spectacle of it all, especially when it was backed by Queen’s music itself. But then I remembered that anything positive wasn’t coming from the film putting in the work, but from an already established piece of art that had built-up worth from its place in my life over all these years. I’ll never not sing along to “We Are the Champions,” and it’s a little manipulative of the film to exploit that sentiment rather than find ways to make its usage meaningful. But in the end, there’s not much else to be said about the film. It just sort of exists, neither good nor bad. Freddie Mercury deserved better… but at least he didn’t get something worse.