Queen was a bunch of nerds. In their heyday, the guys were closer to Rush than to David Bowie, misfits whose best place in the word was with one another. They scored Flash Gordon and Highlander *— the latter after their TV-breaking gig at Live Aid, which is to say when they were so famous they could do exactly what they wanted to do. Their comeback single recorded to follow the Live Aid gig, "One Vision", ends with a line that speaks to us all: “gimme gimme gimme fried chicken!”
Through the transformative prism of the stage, the four guys in Queen — an art student, an electronics geek, a trainee dentist, and an astrophysicist — redefined what rock stars could look like. They understood theater and rhythm and the power of the grandiose. By following their instincts, which led them to do all sorts of stuff ‘70s rockers weren’t supposed to do, they became one of the greatest bands in the world.
That’s the Queen story; too bad the movie Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t have much of it. This movie paints heavily-fictionalized scenarios in which Mercury and Queen were unerringly brilliant from moment one. There’s no work, no struggle, no uncertainty. There’s no transformation, only deification. Through this lens, Queen was always the coolest band anywhere, which is not only untrue; it’s boring.
What Bohemian Rhapsody does have is an electric performance from Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. Malek brings a lot of heat to the role but doesn’t have the benefit of a script that digs deep into the singer’s personality. Some of the superficiality may be by design, as Bohemian Rhapsody contends that Mercury was fundamentally a quiet, lonely guy who covered his insecurities with flamboyant excess.
The script’s primary trick is to mine insight into Mercury’s feelings through his songwriting. Sometimes this works, as when the creation of the club-influenced "Another One Bites the Dust" is intercut with Mercury’s first foray into the gay leather bar scene. Often, however, the tactic is a facile substitution for character.
Bohemian Rhapsody is, for a mainstream release celebrating a rock band whose songs have become sports anthems, a surprisingly gay film that does not shy away from depictions of intimacy between men. Mercury’s sexual explorations, however, play like gay panic as often as they do true accounts of his experience. A few moments of clarity stand out, as when Mercury has a late-night conversation with a man who will eventually be significant in his life, but these are rare.
The script renders Mercury’s bandmates as little more than a chorus of supporting voices, even when acknowledging that all four were equal partners. There’s great work here from Gwilym Lee as guitarist Brian May, Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor, and Joseph Mazzello as bassist John Deacon. But the film’s focus is so firmly on Freddie Mercury, and on the idea of Queen as a force of nature, that it doesn’t present more than fragments of band performances until very late in the game. The effect of those performance is electric. I’ve rarely seen actors look as convincingly like musicians as the ones in this film.
The four members of Queen all had unique playing styles, and a specific group dynamic. These actors capture all of it. Their expression of individual mannerisms extends to their off-stage performances as well, particularly in the case of Mazzello’s work as John Deacon.
Band dynamics take a back seat to mythmaking. The script’s obvious fabrications are ultimately tedious. Had Live Aid brought in barely any money before Queen took the stage? This suggests as much. Did Freddie have a big breakup moment in the rain as if he was prefiguring the video for the Queen-inspired song "November Rain"? Did Freddie really experience multiple personal milestones in the hours before one of his band’s most significant performances?
Bohemian Rhapsody implies but doesn’t engage questions about what telling a true story means in the age of Wikipedia, when the dramatic power of fabrications can be torn apart as soon as the credits roll. This movie doesn’t use dramatic license in any ironic or meta-textual way; it’s just blowing hot air.
A DGA ruling obliges me to say this is a film by Bryan Singer, and perhaps the shoot’s own drama — Singer was fired during production, replaced by Dexter Fletcher, who had developed an earlier version of this movie — can be credited with that scene in the rain and other undercooked dramatic decisions. For all the band’s theatricality, Mercury & Co. intuitively knew how to balance bombast and honesty. Bohemian Rhapsody never gets close.
*note: Rush is great. The Flash Gordon and Highlander albums are great.