It was definitely not easy to bring legendary Queen front man Freddie Mercury’s story to the screen. It has been many years in the making, having gone through several stars, directors and studios before landing at 20th Century Fox with Rami Malek as Mercury, and Bryan Singer directing. But, even then, it wasn’t free from obstacles, as Singer was fired with six weeks left in the shoot, replaced by Dexter Fletcher (even though Singer gets final credit). In addition to the personnel shifts, there was controversy about the content of the movie: how much would the movie address Mercury’s sexuality and/or how he died (of AIDS)? Rumors were rampant around early pre-production of this movie that the hands-on involvement by two Queen band members, Brian May and Roger Taylor, as well as Queen’s manager, Jim Beach (all of whom are characters in the movie and have producing credits), might have created a sanitizing effect on the script, both to reduce any negative portrayal of themselves and to perhaps portray Mercury as more of a tragic figure than he might have actually been. In the end, there may have been no way to create a movie that would have been free from controversy, simply due to the fact that it tells the story of one of the most iconic and legendary performers in rock and roll history. Sometimes, for movies like this, the producers need to make a choice: make a movie for the critics or make one for the fans. For Bohemian Rhapsody, their choice is clear.
I wanted to see the movie with the biggest Queen and Mercury fan I know. I wanted to step away from evaluating a movie strictly with a critical eye and see how it played to a bonafide fan, someone who just wanted to spend two hours with Freddie and the music that she loved so much. And, for her, Bohemian Rhapsody was an unadulterated success. And she wasn’t the only one. As soon as the movie ended, the entire audience I was in erupted in spontaneous applause—an audience of all ages, I might add. There was NO denying that Bohemian Rhapsody plays well to an audience and plays even better to Queen fans.
But, sadly, that doesn’t mean it’s a good movie.
Look, I have no problem with movies that may not have the best dialogue or the best acting if they really entertain me. I understand that a LOT of people are loving this movie because it made them happy. Well, here’s the thing: it’s not the movie that made them happy, it’s the MUSIC. Bohemian Rhapsody knows, from the get-go, that their secret weapon is Queen’s deep, resonant, catchy and oh-so-familiar catalog of songs—a catalog that they shamelessly loop throughout this movie, pumping it in to revive slow or colorless scenes like a casino pumps in oxygen. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to not tap your feet to Queen’s infectious anthem rock, to want to sing or clap along. If you don’t have that urge, you’re not human. But don’t be fooled. The music is this movie’s crutch. Without it, it crumbles into a pile of clichéd, semi-offensive and sanitized ordinariness.
But, thankfully, the music does rescue this movie, as does Rami Malek’s absolutely jawdropping performance as Freddie Mercury. When the music isn’t surging through your veins, Malek’s detailed and passionate portrayal fills the screen with a flamboyance and attitude that reminds you that there are some performers we just don’t deserve. Freddie Mercury was such a presence, such a force, that he defined what it meant to be a front man, he broke through stereotypes and blurred lines of sexuality and what was considered to be mainstream. Malek plays Mercury with all the confidence and vulnerability you would expect, and even though so much of what he has to play feels clichéd and beneath him, Malek continues to shine, rising above the uninspiring script.
I’m telling you, if you stripped out the soundtrack and Malek’s performance and looked at the rest of Bohemian Rhapsody, you would find a pathetic blend of tropes, one-dimensional characters, contrived scenes and manufactured sentiment. There is so much that this movie doesn’t have or show, like any real relationships between characters (even though they all continually call each other family), or any real examination of their artistic process (great songs don’t just pop out of thin air). It would have been nice to have a movie that didn’t play like every other rock band movie we’ve ever seen.
But, thankfully, the makers of Bohemian Rhapsody knew enough to make sure the music and Malek are the most important parts of this movie, so much so that they devote the last twenty minutes to a re-creation of Queen’s performance during Live Aid in 1985, a concert that cemented Mercury’s legacy and provides an emotional and uplifting end to the movie. If I didn’t love Malek’s performance so much, I would encourage you to just find some Queen videos on YouTube and skip this movie altogether.