Bohemian Rhapsody is a film that, by all accounts, should make you stop and wonder, “Wait, this hasn’t been made yet?” Freddie Mercury’s life and times are already known to be heady and wild to say the least, so they should easily make for good biopic fodder.
However, years of quiet development hell, with favourite lead choice Sasha Baron Cohen reportedly turning down the role for fears that it would gloss over darker aspects of Freddie’s life, has meant that movie-goers have been deprived of a proper dramatisation of Queen’s rise to rock stardom for some time.
But let’s not focus on what could have been, and rather focus on what is: Bohemian Rhapsody is a slightly messy biopic interrupted by a superb concert film. In terms of a biopic, it’s not sure if it wants to be about Queen or just Freddie. It’s almost as if the film’s focus is divided between the two juggernauts that it treats as two separate entities, trying to give both of them the focus they each deserve while actually doing the opposite.
Significant plot threads are dangled, fleetingly returned to without room to grow, and then neatly wrapped up in the last half hour of the film, as if the writers realised that they hadn’t done anything with them, but they knew they had to tie everything together.
Rami Malek’s performance leaves something to be desired. He’s perfectly competent on screen, but he’s missing a level of exuberance that you’d expect from the character. While Freddie was somewhat reserved in private, it feels as though the film wants to have its cake and eat it too; it is unwilling to fully make him the introverted person he was off-stage while not wanting to abandon it completely.
Unfortunately, because of this Malek comes across as if he’s playing a version of Freddie who’s over being Freddie; it's like he’s too good to be himself. While he does have his moments, particularly in the film’s more dramatic scenes, they’re too few and far between.
The rest of the cast fares much better; however, that may be down to the fact that (with the exception of Brian May, who is played to a tee by Gwilym Lee) not much is known about them as people to the general public, so being able to hit their marks and deliver lines well is enough to be convincing.
A note should also be made of how the film treats Freddie’s sexuality, which was just as complex as any other aspect of him. During a conversation with his wife, Freddie comes out to her as bisexual, to which she flatly remarks, “You’re gay, Freddie.”
To have a character like her, who the audience is sympathetic to, to pigeonhole a man with such a dynamic sexuality as his (not to mention his status as a queer icon the world over) with a flat binary like that is at best misguided and at worst actively harmful to his LGBT+ legacy.
Unfortunately, the film also falls into the easy trap of using his stereotypically gay activities (visiting gay fetish clubs, wearing leather, etc.) as a rather transparent metaphor for his decent into isolation from his bandmates and the wider world.
It’s almost as if the film wants us to dislike a queer man for associating with other queer men.
While Freddie did indeed spiral during this period, it would be much more apt and more cohesive from a storytelling perspective to pin this on just an individual, rather than both the corrupting character in question and the gay scene of the 80s as Rhapsody seems almost too happy to; Freddie only reforms himself when he comes back to the “real world,” where he’s only allowed to be himself in a way that is palatable to heterosexual society.
On the other hand, in term of a concert film it is amazingly well done. The performance sequences are shot in a fantastically engaging way, fully in keeping with the flamboyancy of Queen. The issues with Malek completely disappear, and the frustration of his not-quite-there performance falls away.
He perfectly mirrors Mercury on stage, full of a level of flamboyance and unbridled joy that is utterly infectious, instantly convincing you that you are watching Queen on stage. The film is entirely worth the price of admission for the uninterrupted recreation of the band’s Live Aid set alone, and begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Overall, Bohemian Rhapsody is a haphazard by-the-numbers film saved at the last minute by reminding us why we love Queen so much in a way that only a film on the big screen can - with a big injection of pure movie magic. It’s like coming into a room to find your baby with his dinner all over his head and the floor around him. You want to be mad at the mess before you, but he just goofily grins at you, and you can’t help but forgive him.
Written by John Cartwright