Movie Review – Bohemian Rhapsody
Over the summer, a documentary called Whitney about Whitney Houston came out to theaters. My review of Whitney started as this one will start with a recognition that there are so many films about real-life musicians that they’ve become their own genre. As such, there is a formula to music biographical pictures or music biopics, as there are formulas to anything. Ironically, the protagonist in this film calls out formulas in music itself and says he doesn’t want formulas. Unfortunately, the filmmakers of this story didn’t appear to say the same thing. If you’ve seen any music biopic ever, even recent documentaries like Whitney or the box office hit, Straight Outta Compton (2015) or something really fictionalized like Jersey Boys (2014), then this film hits a lot of the same beats.
Often times, this can’t be helped. If one wants to be faithful to the real person’s life, then the biopic formula can be virtually unavoidable. Musicians, especially rock stars or pop stars, live very similar lives with very similar experiences. What would make a film like this stand out is incredible performances from the actors or the filmmakers finding some kind of hook or issue into which they could delve. The hook could be a cinematic gimmick like when Todd Haynes had a woman play Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007). The issue could be something like mental illness, which was the case in Love & Mercy (2015), the biopic about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.
Director Bryan Singer possibly had an issue in mind here, as his film is about Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, the rock band popularized in the 1970’s and that persisted into the 80’s. The issue possibly could have been Mercury’s queerness or specifically his bisexuality. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything) never digs into his sexuality and for some reason, Singer’s direction whizzes by it in quick montages.
Perhaps, the studio behind this film, 20th Century Fox, pushed this, but the film is mostly sexless. Aside from a couple of kisses, we don’t see Freddie engaging in any sex. A scene of a press conference with Queen has Freddie defiantly refusing to answer questions about his sexuality. He could come across like Liberace in Behind the Candelabra (2013) where he’s closeted to the public, despite his flamboyant persona on stage, but, behind the scenes, everyone knows of his same-sex attraction. Therefore, why not show it more?
The movie tries to reckon with these ideas. Freddie goes on tour throughout the world. He would call home to his longtime partner, Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton (Murder on the Orient Express and Sing Street), while ogling young men who passed by with the implication that he was cheating on her with those guys. The film never really confirms this. All we see is flashy, multicolored titles appear on screen showing us what cities he visited, but his actual sexual exploits remain a mystery.
Like most music biopics, Bohemian Rhapsody brings back nostalgia for all the group’s hit songs. We of course hear those songs, but always prefaced with a cute or funny scene illustrating what inspired those songs or how they were made. This can be a little tedious and repetitive, especially when the inspirations for the songs aren’t that inspired. It’s definitely tedious when after it all, the whole thing is dismissed with someone saying art is better left if the artist doesn’t explain. Mike Myers, who popularized the titular song in his hit comedy Wayne’s World (1992), plays Ray Foster, a music executive at EMI who initially signed Queen to his record label. Ray asks what the titular song and some of its lyrics mean. The band refuses to explain, which would be fine, if the movie itself bothered to explain but it doesn’t, so the whole point of this film is therefore undermined.
It wants to double-back and say that this rock band was like family to Freddie. The guys in it were men he needed. The problem is that it’s clear that the other guys in the band are reduced to a stereotype of nothing more than what each studied in school. Roger Taylor is the blond dentist. Brian May is the big, curly-haired astrophysicist and John Deacon is the electrical engineer, but that’s all they are. The movie never dives into their home lives for example. When they say they’re married with kids at the end, it’s a total shock. The film only cares about Freddie and even with his larger than life presence, that’s still inadequate.
The film culminates in a long, dragging recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance in 1985. The sequence really tests how much of a fan one is of Queen. Three full songs are depicted. It’s good music, but, as rendered here, it’s sheer indulgence. Rami Malek (Mr. Robot and The Pacific), who plays Freddie Mercury, is good in the role, but that’s the best I can say. Instead of an extended lip-sync, it would have been better seeing him develop the relationships with the cast, either the band members or his gay lovers like Paul Prenter, played by Allen Leech (Downton Abbey and Rome), and Jim Hutton, played by Aaron McCusker (Dexter and Shameless). Otherwise, the whole thing feels hollow.
Rated PG-13 for suggestive material, drug content and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 14 mins.