After a long and turbulent journey, Bohemian Rhapsody is finally landing on the big screen. While it’s not quite the apocalypse many cinephiles feared it would be — Rami Malek, at least, is worth the price of admission — it’s a middling effort that glosses over much of what makes Freddie Mercury an interesting subject in the first place. And that’s not to mention that Bryan Singer, who apparently has more Hollywood lives than a cat, and who was fired late in the production process, has brought the same lack of character development that has plagued other recent projects (looking at you X-Men: Apocalypse). Because even though there’s decades worth of the Queen story to tell, Singer elects to string together a greatest hits line-up of shiny, happy arena rock, so that you walk away more with the impression of having watched a bunch of music videos than a biopic.
For this reason, Bohemian Rhapsody will likely prove to be a crowd pleaser. It’s unfailingly safe and even manufactures a breakup that never happened to create a happy ending on which to hang the big finale of the band’s legendary Live Aid gig. And with Queen as your soundtrack, it’s difficult not to feel the music. Certainly, the actors who make up the band all give their all and are collectively the best part of the film. The trouble is that they’re given very little to do. With the exception of a tense exchange and a single debaucherous party, we rarely see them together as people away from the act of creation. We simply see them as we’ve always seen them in music videos and rock docs.
And so, Bohemian Rhapsody is a biopic of a different generation, one less interested in exposing and exploring humanity and rather more invested in creating a sort of newsreel of big moments. It’s fine and even sometimes fun to watch, but later, it feels hollow and wanting. Apart from this great narrative injustice, the picture also suffers a bit in its desperation to render a picture-perfect recreation, some bad wigs and an aggressive amount of close-up lip-syncing shots combine to rather frequently break the illusion that Rami Malek works so hard to keep alive. As viewers, we already know he’s not singing (and that’s wise, because who could live up to Mercury’s standard), but the film doesn’t do him any favors by pulling all of our focus to the way he moves his lips as he silently channels one of the greatest vocalists to ever live. When everything is spot on, it’s magic. When the slightest thing is off, it’s distracting at best and off-putting at worst.
Against these odds, Malek pulls off some genuine moments of greatness that make this picture worthwhile, even if the end result does his performance a disservice. But it’s difficult not to wonder what this picture might have been with an R-rating, a braver director and a story that cared more about Mercury as a person than as a myth.