Review: 'Bohemian Rhapsody' Doesn't Care About Real Life, Just Fantasy
by Adam Frazier
November 2, 2018
During an interview in 2010, Queen guitarist Brian May announced that a film about the legendary British rock band was in the works. Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Brüno) was set to play Freddie Mercury, with Peter Morgan (The Queen and Frost/Nixon), writing the screenplay. In 2013, however, Cohen left the project due to creative differences. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) would helm the biopic with Ben Wishaw as Mercury. That fell apart, too. Then in 2015, writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, The Darkest Hour) signed on to the seemingly doomed project. The film was soon fast-tracked by 20th Century Fox, with director Bryan Singer and actor Rami Malek set to play Freddie. And now Bohemian Rhapsody, a paint-by-numbers biopic that feels less like a definitive telling of Queen's rise to fame and more like Oscar Bait Mamma Mia!™.
Book-ended by the band's iconic performance at 1985's Live Aid, the film begins in 1970 with a British Pari student, Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), going to a nightclub to watch a local band called Smile. After the show, he meets guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and offers to be the group's new lead singer after their bassist/vocalist quits. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), the group — now known as Queen — plays gigs across England until they sell their van to produce their debut album, titled simply Queen. During this time, Bulsara creates the flamboyant stage persona of Freddie Mercury and legally changes his name as such. He develops a relationship with Londoner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and the band lands a record deal with EMI Records.
From there, the film exists merely as a conduit for Queen's music. It's a Greatest Hits sing-a-long, including "We Will Rock You," "Another One Bites the Dust," "I Want to Break Free," "We Are the Champions," and of course, the titular six-minute track, "Bohemian Rhapsody." When the film attempts anything resembling drama, it does so poorly, providing a one-dimensional, surface-level appraisal of Mercury's tragic life. There are two conflicts at the center of this story. The first is between Mercury and the band. In 1984, Mercury moves to Munich to work on his first solo album, Mr. Bad Guy, which results in the group breaking up. Why this would be an issue, when Roger Taylor was already at work on his second solo album, is beyond me. It's almost like the filmmakers were worried that you might like the protagonist too much, so they had to make him look like an asshole. Don't worry, there's a really odd scene in which Freddie begs the band to take him back, assuring the other members that without them he's really nothing, which smooths over the fabricated conflict just in time for the gang to reunite at Live Aid.
The second conflict centers around Freddie's sexuality and his relationships with Mary and manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). In Munich, Freddie falls into a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse under the influence of Prenter, who is your standard-issue, barely-cares-about-anyone evil manager in a music biopic. Prenter is a manipulative leech who constantly distracts the rock star with drugs, alcohol, and orgies. Weirdly, Freddie's homosexuality is the villain of the piece; the reason his loving relationship with Mary fell apart, and why the band broke up (even though they didn't). Eventually, Queen reunites and makes their way to Live Aid, but even this publicly televised piece of history is not without its fair share of inaccuracies. During rehearsals, an obviously ill Freddie tells the group that he has AIDS. Of course, from all published accounts, Mercury wasn't diagnosed with HIV until 1987, two years after the Live Aid show. It's as if McCarten and Singer thought Mercury's story wasn't cinematic enough, so they changed the facts to manufacture emotion.
It's an odd move to end Mercury's story in 1985, the same year Mercury started dating Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner throughout his struggle with AIDS until the singer's passing in 1991. Again, it's like the movie is prioritizing Mercury's heterosexual relationship with Austin instead of focusing on his loving partnership with Hutton. While the Live Aid sequence is a near-perfect recreation of their iconic set, you'd think that was the last time Queen ever performed, even though they would record multiple albums together afterward. Biopics are not documentaries, and sometimes, creative license is a necessity, but Singer's movie distorts the facts with such blatant disregard that it's insulting to Mercury's legacy. In terms of authenticity, Bohemian Rhapsody makes 2001's Rock Star look like Gimme Shelter.
Equally frustrating is how good the performances are for such a lackluster movie. Malek disappears into the role of Freddie, effortlessly capturing the singer's physicality and magnetism. He is equal parts flamboyant and introspective, walking the tightrope between boldness and shyness with ease. Likewise, Hardy, Lee, and Mazzello are pitch-perfect in their roles as Taylor, May, and Deacon. They don't have as much screen time as Malek, but they do a fantastic job of embodying Queen's legendary lineup. Lucy Boynton, Tom Hollander, and Aiden Gillen are strong in supporting roles, though I wish the script were more interested in exploring their connections to the group instead of being filler between musical performances.
Considering the band's involvement in its production, it's a shame that Bohemian Rhapsody doesn't honor their legacy adequately or accurately. Sure, it pays respect to Mercury and the band, but it also does them a great disservice by shying away from their reality and the truth. It's an entirely fine if underwhelming movie that will no doubt entertain general audiences and casual fans, but die-hard devotees of the band may find the countless inconsistencies and surface-level storytelling jarring and rather distasteful. See it for Malek's performance and the music, of course, but if you're looking for anything resembling the truth, you'd be better off listening to the soundtrack while reading the band's Wikipedia page.
Adam's Rating: 2.5 out of 5
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Reader Feedback - 6 Comments
I don’t understand how you reviewers keep forgetting that factual biopics are so dreadfully boring that the only people who will watch them are patreons of PBS.
Jimmy Hauser on Nov 2, 2018
Womp...I'm disappointed. // Thanks for the review, Adam!
DAVIDPD on Nov 2, 2018
I heard a rumour that Brian May had a large influence on the film and it impacted its development, changing the focus more onto the music and off Freddy Mercury.
Lewis on Nov 3, 2018
Really wish they went with Sacha Baron Cohen's vision instead...
cuckoozey on Nov 3, 2018
Well, the film certainly isn't perfect. But this review is also special kind of mediocre writing. Of course, there was poetic licence (yes, especially when it comes to the chronology) in the film and the surviving members of the band probably did influence the story but, still, everything important about Freddy is in there, maybe not in right measure, but still all right. Sugar coated? Not really sure, there are dark tones, they just don't prevail. Heterosexual relation overshadows homosexual one? Nope, everything is clearly stated in the film. Of course, somebody believes that Freddy's transgressions would make better film. Why? I mean, if there are some transgressions that could have been ascribed to him, he made them a mainstream affair and less transgressive. After seeing video for 'I want to break free' I myself thought in 1980s that homosexuality has finally gone mainstream. No big deal about it, it's not 1950s. And now, few decades later somebody needs to see something provocative about Freddy in the film that is mostly celebrating him (and I agree with everything that Bo in his post said about him. Of course, he, Bo, probably won't do the same with my post). Freddy's homosexuality and queerness has been shown to the audience of 21st century as a mainstream affair, something what those things mostly are nowadays (and I'm writing this in the midst of Eastern European bigotry). And, as for Sacha Baron Cohen, I think he would be good Freddy too. But I don't see how being better than Malek would be the real thing here. Baron's (hypothetical) portrayal would only be different and probably worthy of attention in its own terms. Just like Malek's is. I hope we'll get that one too someday ...
shiboleth on Nov 5, 2018
Sigh... very disappointing reading this (and multiple other reviews) about just how bland and sanitized this film was. And this was my most anticipated film of the year too, hands down.
JohnDoeB on Nov 5, 2018
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