Fun fact: if you put enough liquor in me I will attempt to sing Queen. On a karaoke stage. In front of people. I’m probably better at ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ – that’s not to say I’m any good, period – but that doesn’t stop me from queuing up for the old 6-minute ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ every now and then. Queen’s hit rock opera ballad is impossible not to belt along to, then and now. A soaring frenzied assault of vocal prowess and unmatched musicianship, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ mixes fab-rock with the opera house to create what very well could be the best song of all time. Freddie Mercury hits notes few can. Certainly notes that I cannot.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the musical biopic from noted gay director Bryan Singer, attempts to peel back the mystery of Mercury. Case and point, we learn that Mercury’s signature buck teeth are the product of four additional incisors. So says the film, they give him more range. Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) absolutely nails the delivery, wrapping every last line up in a kind of come-hither dubiousness. We aren’t sure if he’s completely serious or willingly bullshitting. He may full well believe this myth about a crowded mouth and range or he may be deflecting criticism with shade and quick wit. It’s never perfectly clear and that’s what’s so alluring about him as a character.
Mercury exists in this mysterious plane of ambitious origin, sexuality, and mythos. The only thing that he wants to be for certain is his talent. And his fabulous fashion sense. And both glorious aspects are put on full display with Bohemian Rhapsody, which willfully succeeds as a tribute to Mercury’s unwavering talent (and choice wardrobe) if not as a complicated examination of his darker shades or near-mythical sexuality.
But do we really need yet another biopic that wallows in the muck and mire? Do we need to see the divorces up close and personal? The crippling hangovers? The hours spent at the clinic, weeping over fatal prognoses? Going into Bohemian Rhapsody, I wasn’t expecting a deconstruction of the AIDS crisis through the lens of one of its most famed victims and I’m glad I didn’t get it. Rather Singer is able to capture shades of the turbulence always an arm’s length from Mercury and reflects it through Malek’s considerable talent. It’s far from a perfect biopic – and it’s almost offensively sanitary for a Freddie Mercury biopic – but it’s also pretty darn entertaining for what it is and about as close as 2018 is going to get to being at a Queen concert.
Maleck leads the feature like a circus leader, spiriting us through the band’s formation and rise, filling in cute little details in the margins that help add to the mythos of the characters. Working from a decades-old script from Anthony McCarten, Singer’s film also does its fair share of sugar-coating. Mercury and bandmates Jim Beach (Tom Hollander), Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), and Brian May (Gwilym Lee) are privy to an elevator ride up the staircase of fame and fortune and there’s darkness hinted at (infidelity, booze, etc.) but it goes largely ignored to instead shine the spotlight on Queen’s bandmate’s familial bond and the unprecedented relationship they built with their audiences and fans.
Singer’s is the kind of saccharine filmmaking that emerges from years behind the curtain of blockbusters. His shots are tasteful and creative – the way he frames Malek slamming on the ivories and belting his tunes are particularly delicious – but the film floats on the surface, a superficial, white-washed creation; one that the subjects would surely approve of because it casts them as misfit heroes winning the world over one bizarro hit at a time. Bohemian Rhapsody is a well-intended feature, one that refuses to paint anyone in a bad light, that doesn’t get bogged down in the melodrama. And that’s not necessarily a mark against it.
Despite its formulaic waltz – precipitous fame, internal fracturing, drugs, tardiness, reconciliation – the film hums along with a fantastic sense of energy. This isn’t high-minded drama. And to pretend otherwise is to miss the point. It’s entertainment, pure and luminous and sparkly and sounding good as hell. In a scene where record mogul Ray Foster (Mike Myers) tears apart “Bohemian Rhapsody”s nonsensical words, Mercury waxes on the subjectivity of poetry and connecting with an audience. How each person is welcome to their own interpretation. “Scaramouche” and “Fandango” may sound like gibberish words but they can mean whatever people want them to mean.
Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t poetry – it’s not even art really – but it does succeed on that critical component of connecting with its audience, getting them involved and riled up and excited about the music. My feet rarely stopped keeping time. My head was on rocking back and forth like a bobblehead. If there was one thing I was certain of going into a Queen movie, it was that the music was going to be fantastic and Bohemian Rhapsody does not disappoint. The jams in Singer’s film are cranked up to 11, and the recreations are simply seamless (combining Mercury’s tracks with an inpersonator and Malek), whilst slipping in as many iconic Queen classics as could possibly fit into its runtime (despite leaving out some of my personal favorites.)
At critical junctions, this is to the film’s detriment, like when it closes on a 4-song set at LiveAid. (There is absolutely no need to include second-tier hits like “Radio Gaga” and “Hammer To Fall”, but there they are.) For a movie that’s already running over 2-hours, there is much to trim – especially in favor of something a little more hard-hitting and substantial and not so clean and safe – but Singer, much like Mercury, wants it all. And we saw how that worked out for the Queen frontman.
CONCLUSION: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ might not be the cat’s meow for those looking for a serious deep dive docu-drama about Freddie Mercury and Queen but Rami Malek’s fantastic starring turn, a totally-toe-tapping soundtrack, and undeniable upbeat energy make this a populist – if shallow – crowd-pleaser.