Bohemian Rhapsody: The Show Does Go On, by David Bax
Queen had so many great songs that, with the exception of the one it’s named after, Bohemian Rhapsody almost never uses the same one multiple times. Director Bryan Singer stages some of them as full-on performances (you could make a good argument that the movie qualifies as a musical) and some of them as montages covering specific periods in the life of Freddie Mercury, the band, Britain or the world. The best version of this approach is one that opens the film. As Mercury wordlessly prepares for Queen’s set at Live Aid—waking, dressing, jogging in place backstage, etc.—“Somebody to Love” blares on the soundtrack. The crescendo, with the lyrics “Can anybody find me somebody to love?” arrives as the camera finally pushes past Mercury upon his taking the stage, showing us the cheering, adoring audience. Here, Singer suggests, Mercury has found somebody to love. Unfortunately, that’s about as subtle as Bohemian Rhapsody ever gets.
Following Mercury from his young days as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport, the film tracks Queen’s ascension to Rock Gods status. At the same time, and with actor Rami Malek doing almost all of the heavy lifting, it attempts to color in the icon as someone who cared deeply about his friends and family even if his ego sometimes made it difficult for him to express it. Unfortunately, this is done via thuddingly corny biopic tropes and grand declarations, as if the whole movie were just a trailer that never stopped.
Like too many movies about well-loved figures, Bohemian Rhapsody can’t resist mythologizing Mercury. From the beginning, he struts and proclaims as if he has always been a star and the world just needed to catch up. Given that we already know of his success to come, that’s an incredibly shallow characterization, one which reassures us that the superficial idea of Mercury we have in our heads is actually the correct one. If that’s the case, what are we watching this movie for? Screenwriter Anthony McCarten applies the same template not only to his protagonist but to every song, video, relationship, concert, album or anything else we already know about. Each scene in Bohemian Rhapsody depends on your knowing the outcome beforehand. Feints at discord within Queen make the bandmates the most glaring casualties. Will Roger be swayed from his stance against sounding too disco when he hears John’s bass line for “Another One Bites the Dust”? Let’s find out!
There’s oddly little pushback against Freddy’s ideas for “Bohemian Rhapsody” the song, though, since the movie insists the whole band knew it was going to be a massive hit from the beginning. The bulk of the time spent on the tune takes place in the studio, as Freddy plays the idiosyncratic maestro. The sequence recalls the Pet Sounds section of Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy but Bohemian Rhapsody does not benefit from the comparison. Pohlad was able to elucidate the process of building a song in the studio while never losing track of his protagonist’s emotional state. Singer just turns it into a mugging, pratfalling episode of The Monkees.
Malek deserves better for the commitment and magnetism he brings to the screen. Thanks mostly to his irresistible exuberance, Bohemian Rhapsody comes to life every time we just get to see the band perform in front of a crowd. If this were simply a recreation of a concert, it would probably be pretty great (and, if you’re the type who judges a movie by how it ends, you will likely end up with a far more favorable opinion of it than I did). Even in these sequences, though, Singer can’t stop muddying things up with garish, digital camera swoops.
Maybe that better, less narrative-driven version of the movie actually exists somewhere, or could. It seems possible, given that, in its current form, the movie plays like a wobbly assembly cut. Each scene appears to have its own pace and tone. It’s less a movie than a haphazard stack of incidents. Queen made great albums; Bohemian Rhapsody is just a playlist.