There are a host of single instances I could point to in Bohemian Rhapsody – the biopic of rock god Freddie Mercury and Queen, the band he fronted – that illustrate its utter lack of subtlety, wit, or desire to present anything other than a collection of cheap crowd-pleaser moments. The most egregious example involves Mike Myers. The comedian introduced the music of Queen to a generation of teenagers (myself included) with his movie Wayne’s World, a feature length version of a popular Saturday Night Live recurring sketch. In that movie, Myers’ character Wayne Campbell and his friends drive aimlessly around their suburban hometown rocking out to Queen’s masterwork, Bohemian Rhapsody. Their head-banging to guitarist Brian May’s epic rock solo weaved itself into the cultural zeitgeist of the moment.
Myers turns up in the film Bohemian Rhapsody for all of five minutes. The actor sees himself as a sort of latter-day Peter Sellers; he delights in being a comedic chameleon, disguising himself in elaborate make-up or prosthetics and using accents to become almost unrecognizable. In Rhapsody he plays Ray Foster, a record label executive who is adamant that Queen’s song Rhapsody will never be released as a radio single on his watch. He thinks the song too long, non-sensical, and bizarre to ever become a hit.
Having Myers embody the character that delivers this news to the band would have been enough. It still wouldn’t have been subtle, but it might have existed as an unspoken wink to a knowing audience. But just in case any of us don’t get the reference, Myers’ character goes ahead and spells it out for us. Do you think this is something kids will be banging their heads to, Foster sarcastically asks the band? All that’s missing is Myers looking straight into the camera and smiling at us.
This moment typifies the bulk of Bohemian Rhapsody as well as the most popular work of its screenwriter, Anthony McCarten. His biopics about physicist Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything) and Winston Churchill (Darkest Hour) rely on the broadest of strokes to provide only the most surface level examination of their subjects. His output is a veritable checklist of the most clichéd biopic tropes:
An overambitious scope that attempts to cram every major life event of its subject into a single movie? That’s Bohemian Rhapsody’s exact structure.
An over-reliance on montage sequences to illustrate the main character(s) either a) perseverance over adversity or b) inner demons? Check.
The stripping down of a complex human life into a convenient three-act structure that robotically charts the subjects a) aspirations to greatness b) attainment of greatness c) fall from grace and d) attempt at redemption? Yep.
It doesn’t go far enough to merely call Bohemian Rhapsody’s screenplay formulaic. That could imply it was an accident: McCarten meant to craft a touching look at a larger than life figure, and his effort slipped into the formulaic. No, this is more elemental than that. This is screenwriting as actual formula. McCarten’s work gives the impression that he replaced a series of algebraic letters in an equation with specific events from Freddie Mercury’s life and went from there.
A crucial part to the formula of a biopic about a popular entertainer is giving the audience plenty of moments of foreshadowing in which they can knowingly smile and nod their head to what’s coming. Freddie playing the first ten notes of Bohemian Rhapsody on a piano for his girlfriend early in the movie is a prime example of this. The girlfriend, Mary, tells Freddie she likes the music, and he responds, “I think it has potential.” Yes, Freddie, yes it does have potential, we are meant to think as we share a collective hushed chuckle. The picture is full to bursting with moments like this.
A movie like Miles Ahead, a biopic about Miles Davis, for all its faults, deserves praise precisely because of its attempts to subvert or avoid this tired structure.
As disappointing as McCarten’s screenplay is (although, to be fair, I don’t know if he’s responsible for all the montages or if the director and editor crafted them without his input) the movie’s grand production style and a towering performance are worthy of praise.
Queen was known for theatrical, flamboyant stage shows. Bohemian Rhapsody captures the excitement of these performances with an electric energy. The movie is bookended with Queen’s comeback performance in 1985 at Live Aid, a massive benefit concert staged to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. Whether the band would set aside their differences to play Live Aid after Freddie left to pursue a solo career (see sub-items c and d under the last point from my list above) was an open question.
It’s not a spoiler that they did; the movie opens with Freddie taking the stage. That it ends with the last 20 minutes becoming a concert film is a testament to Queen’s (and particularly Freddie Mercury’s) on-stage charisma. It was a vital aspect of their identity, and the movie honors that by succumbing completely to the performance. To re-create it, the production crew constructed an exact replica of the Wembley Stadium Live Aid set.
It’s hard to know who exactly to credit for the meticulous attention to detail. The movie’s production company, 20th Century Fox, fired director Bryan Singer after his repeated absences from the set caused halts in production. Singer claims his absences were due to caring for a sick family member, but they also coincided with an actor filing a lawsuit accusing Singer of rape in 2003. Dexter Fletcher replaced Singer, but he stated that principle photography was two-thirds finished when he started work. No matter who should get the credit, it’s undeniable that Bohemian Rhapsody’s re-creation of Queen’s live performances, especially the Live Aid set, are magical.
Almost all the on-screen credit for the success of these moments belongs to the phenomenal Rami Malek, who transformed himself into Freddie Mercury for the movie. Malek, with the help of the make-up department, is Mercury. He masterfully incorporates the late singer’s quirky on-stage mannerisms into his performance.
Malek also uses his performance to add shades of complexity – despite the movie’s lack of it – to Mercury’s struggles with his sexuality. Mercury was a closeted gay man who kept up appearances through his girlfriend Mary. While the movie tends toward a lack of subtly on the subject – there is one montage of Mercury entering the world of homosexuality by way of the Leather Daddy/BDSM club scene – Malek incorporates an understated desperation into his performance. Mercury wanted to be accepted for who he was, but he knew he lived in a culture that made that impossible, and Malek’s performance beautifully underscores those competing ideas.
It’s a shame that McCarten’s hackneyed screenplay lets down Malek’s revelatory performance as well as the movie’s overall energy and genuine affection for the singular talent that was Freddie Mercury. The magic that he and his fellow band mates conjured when they brought Queen into the world is present in Bohemian Rhapsody, but it’s diluted with a thoroughly conventional approach to the musical biopic genre.
Why it got 3 stars:
- This rating would be a lot lower if not for Rami Malek’s incredible performance. He channels Freddie Mercury, plain and simple. The staging of the Live Aid performance is very good, as well. The actual movie, however, commits just about every sin a biopic can commit.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- It’s ironic that Bohemian Rhapsody and Blaze came out in the same year. The director of Blaze, Ethan Hawke, has spoken in interviews about doing a musical biopic of someone most people haven’t heard of, and how freeing that was for him as a storyteller. You can make a story interesting, even if everyone knows the basics of what will happen, like with Bohemian Rhapsody, but Blaze has such a different energy in that aspect.
- There are certain moments that feel like the movie is tipping its hand about the flaws that critics could attack. There is (yet another) montage that shows Queen on the road, and they give the hackneyed delivery of “We love you [insert city name here],” to city after city after city. It’s a cliché thing to do, and it’s a nice in-movie parallel to the clichés that the movie deals in.
- A huge problem with the movie (and this is related to Mike Myers delivering his kids head-banging line), is that the movie shows no sense of restraint. At the Live Aid performance, there is a moment when Bob Geldof, one of the concert’s organizers, is stressed out, because no one is donating money. You can probably guess where this goes. As soon as Queen takes the stage, the phones start ringing like mad. Who knows, that might have happened, but pulling back just a little from that would have made it much more believable.
- As disappointing as the movie is, I still got a visceral charge out of seeing certain events dramatized. The recording of the song Bohemian Rhapsody, for one. The re-creation of the Live Aid set, and many of the other live performances that the movie dramatizes gave me chills.
- If you know anything about me, you know that when I was a wee lad, I absolutely loved the corny, terrible 1980 film version of Flash Gordon, for which Queen provided the rockin’ score. I know why this was left out. The movie was a bomb, and it’s pretty god-awful. Still, I have to admit that I was a little crestfallen when there wasn’t one mention of the movie that got me so excited when I was five years old.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- This movie should do well at the box office. The worst biopic tropes that the movie traffics in make Bohemian Rhapsody is an absolute crowd-pleaser. There was much applause and cheering after the advance screening I attended.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I’m taking an extended break. I don’t think I’ve ever missed posting a review two weeks in a row in the almost four years I’ve been writing about movies. Rach and I are leaving the country for a European river cruise, so you won’t see a review from me until after Thanksgiving. There is a slight possibility I might get it together enough to post something on November 16th, but I can’t guarantee it.