Bohemian Rhapsody is perhaps better known at the moment as the surprise winner of the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama). Black Panther, If Beale Street Could Talk, and A Star is Born (and of course Roma, which wasn’t even nominated) are better films, so there is a little mystery here. Did the votes get split between two other films, and BR came out the winner? Who knows? But the film certainly doesn’t deserve the win.
The film is a colorful mess, perhaps reflecting its problems with director Bryan Singer—far too complex and strange to even begin to address here—and perhaps with its failed attempts to get a point of view on the subject, Freddie Mercury, himself. Mercury was the lead singer of Queen, which the film at least presents as having an identity and life apart from its troubled frontman.
The structure of the film is typical biopic. Troubled artist struggles against parental expectations, breaks into the musical scene with ease, runs into relationship issues right from the start, achieves breathtaking success, gets cocky, turns his back on his band, then apologizes for being an arrogant idiot, then triumphs on the biggest stage imaginable, gets sick, and then (spoiler alert) dies.
The monkey wrench in the works of this generic formula is Mercury’s struggles with his homosexuality, which the film simply doesn’t know what to do with. Unable to avoid the issue when it was so significant an issue to the singer, who died of AIDS, yet unwilling to explore the dark side of his behavior, the film ends up whiffing this aspect of his personality and life. Apparently, Mercury’s behavior was much more reckless than the film portrays, and a more honest approach to his behavior and internal struggles might have added some much needed shading to both the character and the bland generic approach the film takes to this anything-but-bland performer.
The main problem seems to be the script, which is a paint-by-numbers approach to the musical hits that form the film’s journey, even at the expense of tracking the journey of its lead. Great hits come at key moments, apparently exciting the movie viewer/listener with a familiar riff that leads into the creation and performance of that familiar and anticipated song. Vacillating between telling the story of the songs and telling the story of its lead, the film seems to only have the hand of chronology at its back, pushing it forward with some sense of direction and purpose.
Rami Malek, also a Globe winner for Best Actor/Drama, is getting all the attention, and deservedly so. But as good as he is, especially with the technical elements of a Mercury stage performance, the film’s lack of focus doesn’t provide Malek with the depth of character needed for a more rounded performance (of which he seems more than capable). He has his few obligatory moments of sad-face, the occasional tear, and the requisite moments of entitled shouting, but there is little digging into who Mercury might have been. The film gives a great deal of attention to his first serious girlfriend, who was apparently a key figure throughout his life. But beyond that complicated relationship, which is always touched upon and never really dug into, Mercury’s other romantic /sexual relationships are soft-pedaled and muted. On the positive side, the actors playing the other members of Queen provide some solid work as understandable and relatable colleagues, and help to ground the film in reality.
The film’s main attributes, aside from Malek, are the musical numbers, especially the grand finale of the Live Aid concert. If you’re a Queen fan, or even just a fan of the some of the better-known songs, the film presents them as if we were at a concert, which works well on the simple level of enjoying the numbers. But while the music is a treat for fans, the film’s lack of focus ultimately muddies the story and the identity of it its principal character. Plus…the group never split up, Live Aid wasn’t a reunion concert for them, boyfriend Jim Hutton first met Mercury in a gay bar, record executive Ray Foster didn’t exist, Mary didn’t come into the picture as the film indicates, and as might be expected, Queen’s formation was nowhere near as simple and clean as the film presents. But hey, who needs accuracy in a film about a real person in a real band?