The Pitch: Ready, Freddie? He’s a Killer Queen. Gunpowder, gelatin. Dynamite with a laser beam. Guaranteed to blow your mind, anytime! This is 20th Century Fox’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a dramatic account of the life and times of Freddie Mercury and Queen. At least, as much as the band will allow it to be about Mercury over Queen.
See, this was produced by surviving Queen members Brian May, Roger Taylor, and the band’s manager, Jim “Miami” Beach. Gwilym Lee is guitarist Brian May (permed and puppy-eyed), Ben Hardy is drummer Roger Taylor (baby-faced and hot-headed), Joseph Mazzello is bassist John Deacon (present). And Freddie is played by Rami Malek of Mr. Robot, with all the mercurial display one might expect. Bohemian Rhapsody is a reel of the good times, rolling. The band’s run from 1970 to 1985 is chronicled, as we see Queen form and eventually perform at Live-Aid. No personal origin stories. No sight of Mercury’s lesser-known suffering. Songs are made, montages pass the time, and the butchering of Queen classics occurs.
Bohemian Crapsody: Fade-in. The crowd booms. The credits begin to roll. Mercury is luxuriously framed in behind-the-back tracking shots. Intrigue accumulates. Executive Music Producer credits for Brian May and Roger Taylor share screen time with cute images of Freddie Mercury’s cats. Cigarettes. Stoli. Branded band crates with instruments and microphones, shot in pornographic close-up. Wembley Stadium. It’s the day of Live-Aid, summer ‘85. Why else would there be all this teasing? It’s the big one. Freddie is still followed, a spry creature in a tank top with studded belts (arm and waist). He takes the stage, and the film cuts back: “1970.”
Good lord, another one of these?
There’s a tacky little word one can throw around for movies like this, but it’s so fitting: clichéd. Bohemian Rhapsody is like watching 40 years of musical biopic tropes in brief, shortened and scrubbed and marketed within a bank-friendly PG-13 presentation. Wikipedia-level beginnings, band consternations and growth, excess and artistry losing its way only to find itself again in a big, final moment and/or concert. Freddie walks up to the band to join. In-studio sparring leads to creative genius. Record executives and music critics pooh-pooh their sound, but it doesn’t really matter when they sell out shows globally. All this, of course, is recalled through over-edited, over-shot montages, scored with painfully obvious and popular Queen (often chopped to bits). They travel to “MIDWEST USA” or “RIO,” intercut with bus shots and payphone patter while “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Killer Queen,” and other chart-toppers flail on the soundtrack.
Freddie’s budding homosexuality and identity? Window dressing, and innuendos lit in red. The band maintains animus with Fred’s bullish vision, but all the while completely support and accept his greatness. Anti-drama, one might call that. Fred’s partying ways get screen time, with impromptu bacchanals, rococo ‘80s house decor, crowns and royal shoulder pads and all that. But it’s still shallow and simplistic, and at times curiously scrubbed of the drugs and excess one could get in, you know, an R-rated movie. That might feel more Queen. (Which: would it have killed this movie to avoid using leather-clad gay men solely for texture, and actually consider them as people? Food for thought.)
Hey Brian May? Ray Charles, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, NWA, and Dewey Cox called. They want their movies back. This movie isn’t the wacky, tacky, prog-and-glam revelry that is Queen. It’s processed pop music.
Greatest Shits: What’s the point of playing ball with the band to get licensing for all the best songs, if you’re going to chop them to shit? The blame can be shared around, but the use of Queen here is frustrating, and even crass. The song creation montages undercut the glory of Queen by never allowing the songs to be played in full, or with enough oomph while the band keeps dissecting and negotiating. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is teased, drawn out, shown in pieces, and even book-ended with record stooges bemoaning that it will never work. All the side business is so distracting that you forget the band was trying to make a full album in these moments. The movie wants the song. That’s it. Even the Live-Aid medley, the film’s big finale that bluffs fidelity, cuts corners. A whole song is missing. That ought to sit well with Queen-fiends.
Additionally, the award for lamest film moment of 2018 may go to this film. When Freddie goes in to be tested for AIDS, and is given the bad news, the film sets all this to the band’s Highlander theme, “Who Wants to Live Forever.” A directorial, musical misfire. The angelic, golden-lit lugubriousness of it is now under consideration for new camp.
The Verdict: Where to begin with this record scratch of a biopic?
Formally, it’s bursting with director Bryan Singer’s propensity for “cool”/impractical shots. This baffling need to over-shoot grows monotonous, from the digitally assisted shots of the camera flying under chairs to the trips behind piano keys to the copious insert shots of Freddie’s damned cats. Letting the hits play could have done away with all that needless overcompensation, but what’s done is done. A pricey, showy presentation can’t make up for a bargain story in Bohemian Rhapsody.
To get a sense of the kind of obvious, middle-of-the-road vibe the film curates, look to credited, final writer Anthony McCarten. An Oscar nominee for big biopics like The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, the movie is delivered in the exact style of those formers. Drama, easy facts about the band, more drama, Freddie’s genius (!), yet more drama, climax, credits full of information about what happened to the band. No flavor necessary; the names carry the burden of excitement and intrigue. Bohemian Rhapsody is another lame music biopic, and its failures ultimately lie in the poor creative choices, the gutless approaches to potentially explosive events in the life of this band. We’re not buying this new album. There’s no new material to be found in Bohemian Rhapsody
Where’s It Playing?: Everywhere on November 2nd. Or, hear us out – you can listen to all of Queen’s hits now, online. Yes, for free (less the ads), you could avoid Bohemian Rhapsody for $15 plus parking, and enjoy “Bohemian Rhapsody” online right this second, and have a much better time. You can even replay it. In full!