It doesn’t help Bohemian Rhapsody that Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born was released so soon before it. When on paper, Rhapsody clearly looks better than Star, it turns out to be the other way around. A music drama can understand one of two things – it can understand the music itself, the reason the musician creates their work and all of the emotional baggage that goes into that. Or it can understand the fame machine – what it means to be a famous person. Most biopics about musicians go for the latter because narratively, it’s easier. And that’s exactly what Bohemian Rhapsody does.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a biopic on Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek,) and the band members that became Queen, and turned him into one of the most iconic entertainment figures of all time. It follows his early life as someone who knew he was destined for great things but didn’t know where to place it. It follows his doomed relationship with a girlfriend (Lucy Boynton) who comes off as the most gullible person on the planet. It follows the band as they figure out their distinct, unmistakable sound, and how fame gradually tears them all apart.
I absolutely hate the way the music in this movie is edited. Aside from a positively transcendent finale that almost saves the entire movie, there’s almost no music. Every time Mercury and the band begin to perform in front of a crowd, it cuts to a conversation that happens after the performance, it split-screens or becomes a montage. This is maddening because this movie would be considerably better if it just let its musical numbers play out. A scene where a record executive complains about how the song Bohemian Rhapsody is six minutes long, and how radio stations won’t play a song longer than 3:20 – a version of this conversation surely happened. But this 2-hour-and-15-minute long movie does not let that song play out in its entirety even one time.
Emmy winner Rami Malek is doing a respectable job as Mercury. However, he doesn’t disappear into the role until the last quarter of the movie, where everything is brought up to a 10. He’s wearing a dental prosthetic to resemble Mercury’s famous overbite, and for the longest time, he doesn’t sound like someone who has talked that way his entire life. He sounds like a makeup artist just put the dental prosthetic in for the first time twenty minutes before cameras rolled. He gets more used to it, and it becomes less distracting as the movie goes on, but in the start, it’s very awkward and it hinders the work he’s doing.
Director Bryan Singer was fired midway through production because of ‘bad behavior’ and sexual assault allegations. Dexter Fletcher, who is directing the forthcoming Elton John biopic Rocketman, took over. The result is a hackneyed film with two conflicting visions. One wants this to be the studio-friendly PG-13 “buy the greatest hits!” biopic and one alludes to something darker and more interesting. If this film didn’t have all of this behind the scenes drama, perhaps it would have been better. It may not have made a difference at all. It’s hard to say, but it’s obvious that it’s not working, and it’s a shame because Mercury’s life deserves a better movie. Mercury was a musician who took chances, and this movie plays it frustratingly safe.
Aside from the final act, about the last twenty-five minutes, there is not an emotionally honest moment in the entire film. Everything feels so pat and clichéd, from the opening moment where Freddie Mercury, who was HIV-positive, coughs. Then we go into a credit sequence where they’re in preparation for the big concert at the end, and we go way back to the beginning before any of these people knew each other. This is such a done-to-death cliché that effectively sets the tone for the next two hours.
However, the movie hopes you’ll forget all of this by the final act, wherein we have the reason we all showed up. The finale, a gorgeously filmed, and absolutely divine performance at the Live Aid concert in 1985, is absolutely breathtaking to behold. It’s done so well, and if the rest of this movie were half this good, it would have broken this movie wide into Oscar season. It made me think of the song from NBC’s (tragically) short-lived series Smash. “Give ‘em that big finish, and they’ll forget what came before! Give ‘em that big finish, and leave ‘em wantin’ more!” Bohemian Rhapsody hopes you’ll forget what came before. And you almost do. You’re still glad you went.