By Chip Chandler — Producer
If we learn anything at all from Bohemian Rhapsody, it's that frontman Freddie Mercury didn't want to do anything the conventional way.
That's why it's such a crazy shame that the film plays so straight, checking off every box of Mercury and his band Queen's career, Behind the Scenes-style.
Unlikely origin story? Check.
Rapid rise to fame? Check.
In-studio bickering? Check.
Ravages of stardom? Check.
Happy comeback? Check.
Dull, rote storytelling that blunts the real impact of the band and puts a high-gloss sheen on the real-life struggles of the performers? Check, check, freaking check.
Despite an electric performance by Rami Malek as Mercury and a killer recreation of the band's iconic 1985 Live Aid performance, "Bohemian Rhapsody" plays it safe throughout — learning precisely the wrong lesson from Queen.
Using that Live Aid concert as a frame, screenwriter Anthony McCarten's script (directed, in part, by Bryan Singer, who was fired before the film was completed but who keeps his credit) hits all of the expected points and skips most of the interesting bits in Mercury's meteoric rise to fame.
Bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor (played by Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy, respectively) get executive producer credits for the film, and according to Sacha Baron Cohen, who had planned to play Mercury, it's because of them that the rock singer's life of excess is so watered down. Whether that's true or not, it's undeniable that May and Taylor come across as slightly dorky, altogether more responsible musicians than Mercury himself.
But Mercury lived his life out loud, and Bohemian Rhapsody mutes him at almost every turn. Though he never publicly came out, Mercury was definitely a queer man living in the height of the sexual revolution. You can barely tell that in this film. Everything's made chaste — from his infamous parties to his clubbing to his existential loneliness. It's the PG-13 version, without a doubt.
It's not only Mercury's character that suffers, either: All of the characters are barely sketched out, without much regard for motivation beyond moving the story from one point to another.
And it's not enough that the filmmakers make Mercury's life more palatable for general audiences: There's a whiff of gay panic throughout. You've got your hissable villain (Allen Leech as manager Paul Prenter), who leverages Mercury's sex life against him. You've got bland scenes of Mercury's sex life filmed in the glow of red lights, all but screaming SIN! at full volume. Most significantly, you've got the falsification of the actual timeline of Mercury's HIV diagnosis; though Mercury wasn't diagnosed until 1987, it's moved to shortly before the 1985 Live Aid concert and is used as a motivation to get the band back together. Intentional or not, the film seems to be saying his HIV diagnosis was punishment for his wanton ways and for daring to go solo (when, in fact, he wasn't the first member of the band to do so).
Yet despite my considerable reservations, I'm not surprised that the film has, thus far, struck a chord with audiences. Malek gives a go-for-broke performance even when the rest of the film lets him down. The Live Aid re-creation truly is electric. And the studio scenes, when we see the band stretching their limits as well as their producers', are a bit more insightful than most similar scenes in other rock biopics. But even then, they don't delve much into the reasons why Mercury and his bandmates wrote their songs and were so determined to do it their own way.
At one point, when trying to defend the band's six-minute opus "Bohemian Rhapsody" to a beyond-skeptical record exec (played by Mike Myers), Mercury says, "Formulas are a complete and utter waste of time."
If only the filmmakers had listened to him.
Bohemian Rhapsody is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language; click here for showtimes at United Artists Amarillo Star 14, 8275 W. Amarillo Blvd.; Cinergy Amarillo, 9201 Cinergy Square; and Cinemark Hollywood 16, 9100 Canyon Drive.