Music is one of the most powerful forces a film can use to evoke emotion and tell a story, and Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by Bryan Singer, is no stranger to a well-placed song. Unfortunately, when the music fades and the script is forced to tell its own story, it stumbles and falls under the weight of Queen’s legacy. It finds some redemption for itself with its star, Rami Malek, who shines with exuberance and steals the show with his electrifying performance that leaves the audience with goosebumps.
The first half of the film tells a rather disjointed origin story of the band, choosing to focus on style and overproduction rather than substance. It introduces us to Freddie Mercury (Malek) and his strained relationship with his traditional family and their values. Freddie soon meets his future band mates Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), whom he impresses with his extensive vocal range. They soon add bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), and the newly formed band begins playing gigs and writing songs. Freddie then convinces them to sell their van to afford money to record their debut album. During this time, Freddie falls in love with a woman named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), with whom he begins a relationship and becomes engaged. The band gets picked up by a record label and soon makes it big enough to travel the United States; all the while, Freddie and Mary are struggling with their relationship as Freddie begins to explore his sexuality on tour. Their romantic relationship ends abruptly when Freddie comes out as bisexual, but she stays connected to him throughout the rest of the film.
We begin to witness the band’s creative differences as they write the titular piece, “Bohemian Rhapsody”. An incredibly amusing series of scenes shows the methods behind the recording of the song, and we truly begin to see Queen’s unique personality and style shine. Each member of the band gains his own voice, but Mercury is without a doubt the loudest. He is boisterous and controlling at every opportunity, but together Queen forms an odd sort of family; their camaraderie is undeniable as they fight against their record label executive, played by Mike Myers, and pressure him to release “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single. His criticisms of the song being that it focuses too much on style over substance, ironically echoing the issues with the film itself.
It continues to follow Freddie as his life grows increasingly chaotic, and he begins to spiral out of control. His drug use spikes, and the band goes through a disastrous interview in which Freddie angrily retaliates against reporters questioning his sexuality. Mercury, now in a relationship with his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), is drawn away from his band mates and attempts a solo act. This is the first opportunity the film takes to really dive into Freddie’s personality beyond his stage persona and to show us who Freddie really was. For a film focused on his life, it tends to keep him at arm’s length and avoid any genuine depth in lieu of the glitz and glam. With what he is given, however, Malek does an incredible job imitating Mercury’s mannerisms and speech, and absolutely dazzles with his performances on stage. Malek brings life to the character and in turn brings life to the film.
Although it is reasonable to note there is a considerably vast amount of time to cover when discussing Queen, it cannot help but feel like a very rushed and oversimplified story when all is said and done. Its brief moments of narrative value are sandwiched between its songs, which are stacked on top of each other in what essentially becomes an homage to Queen’s greatest hits and nothing more. A complicated band with an even more-so complicated frontman is essentially watered down to create a palatable, but shallow, film. While it contains moments of honesty, those genuine moments are often overshadowed and underdeveloped. The film focuses too much on implication, relying on the viewer’s knowledge of Queen and Freddie Mercury to make up for the shortcomings in its narrative.
The film takes a turn when Freddie returns to Queen and is faced with the sobering reality of his AIDS diagnosis. With this comes a significant shift in the tone of the film, alongside the shift and growth in Freddie’s character. Its last act is easily its strongest, showcasing the Live Aid performance and the ultimate reconciliation of Queen. It embraces its intimacies and allows Freddie to be seen, not as an over-dramatic rock star, but as a human being. Bohemian Rhapsody ultimately takes on a huge task with gusto, but sadly falls short with its final product. It is over-produced, over-edited, and lacking in authenticity. Although it falls into the trap of sacrificing its voice for the drama of the performance, it is undeniably difficult to stop yourself from enjoying the thrill of the ride.