Queen was a bombastic, flamboyant, extravagant spectacle of a band. It defined the arena rock anthem and left a creative legacy few other bands have. It’s a shame, then, that the new Queen biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is such a mediocre attempt to tell its story.
It’s not uncommon for film biographies to take narrative shortcuts and conflate events — cramming decades of history into 2½ hours requires a lot of editing, to be sure — however, this film does it to such a degree and plays so fast and loose with true events that it leaves you wondering if anything actually happened as it’s being depicted here.
The hardships of the band’s early touring days are reduced to a flat tire in the English countryside. Likewise, other key events, such as front man Freddie Mercury’s HIV diagnosis, which didn’t occur until after the events we see in the film, are reordered chronologically to heighten drama. The result is a jumbled, poorly paced story that relies too heavily on clichéd tropes and hackneyed montages, which, despite some strong performances and excellent musical set pieces, feels more like a made-for-TV movie than a major studio release.
Honestly, the Queen episode of VH1’s “Legends” that I watched in high school is more interesting and nuanced than what we get here.
It’s unclear who’s to blame, though there’s plenty to go around. Director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects,” the X-Men films) is hardly a subtle filmmaker. And despite his exiting the production late last year before principal photography was completed — Dexter Fletcher, who’s credited as executive producer, took the helm for the last third of it — he still retains sole directorial credit, which suggests that much of what we see here is a result of Singer’s hand. It’s a hand that delivers an empty, surface-level sanitized account that fails to match the style and grandeur of the band it’s depicting.
Part of that sanitized feel may be a product of the band’s alleged desire to tell a family-friendly story that didn’t tarnish Mercury’s legacy. Among other things, those constraints made it difficult to depict Mercury’s sexuality with any nuance or care. His bisexuality exists in the background; its treatment is clumsy and superficial.
It’s odd that Singer, who’s bisexual, would choose to diminish Mercury’s bisexuality so; however, this could also be the effect of the remaining band members’ wishes. Indeed, much of the film views Mercury from the removed perspective of his straight band mates. We do get a few glimpses into Mercury’s internal examination of his sexuality, but it leaves much of his sexual identity left to subtext.
Worse, a stylized musical montage of Mercury meeting men at clubs is questionable for its regressive depiction of his sexual exploration as seedy and drug-fueled. While it’s true, the real-life Mercury was guarded about his sexuality — don’t forget homosexuality was only decriminalized in the U.K. about a decade before, so the fear of persecution was likely still deeply ingrained — the lack of unpacking the queerness that animated his onstage persona makes the film feel antiquated by 2018 standards.
For all its shortcomings, there are a handful of highlights. One is Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”), who has the daunting task of bringing the glamorous Mercury to life. Malek’s performance is one of the few bright spots of this otherwise unremarkable film. Prowling around the stage in front of thousands of adoring fans, Malek fully inhabits Mercury’s larger-than-life persona, recreating the singer’s seductive, mysterious energy and raw sexuality.
For those wondering if that’s actually Malek singing throughout the movie, the answer is kinda; it’s an amalgamation of the actor’s voice mixed with that of noted Mercury chameleon Marc Martel, as well as isolated studio tracks from Mercury himself.
The film also does a good job of showing the band’s creative process in the studio. While the accuracy of how some of these songs came to be is likely as dubious as almost every other detail in the film, the sheer exuberance of these four immensely talented men making music is fun to watch.
Similarly, the faithful recreation of the band’s historic 1985 Live Aid set at Wembley Stadium in London successfully captures the epic nature of what’s widely regarded as one of the best live pop musical performances of all time. Here Singer and Fletcher show how truly massive and important this moment was, even if it is bolstered with some dodgy CGI.
It’s one of the few scenes in the film that effectively matches the scale of the band itself. But ultimately, those parts fail to add up to much more than a string of crowd-pleasing moments. That may be enough to keep true fans bobbing their heads, but it’s unlikely “Bohemian Rhapsody” will succeed at proving the band’s greatness and virtuosity to anyone who didn’t grow up loving it. The end result is a middle-of-the-road movie that feels like a greatest hits compilation that skips all the interesting parts and only plays the hits.