There is a moment in the middle of the second act of Bohemian Rhapsody, the new biopic that explores the life of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) and Queen, where the band is pitching the conceptual feeling of their fourth album, A Night At The Opera. EMI head Ray Foster (played by comedian Mike Myers, who in a later scene states that their song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” will never be a single because kids want something that they can listen to loud while driving around and banging their heads about—GET IT?!) is reluctant, stating in no uncertain terms that Queen should just stick to the established formula. The problem with that, as Brian May and Roger Taylor (Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy) point out is that they are Queen, and Queen does not do formulas.
Would that the movie had heeded that wisdom. For a film purporting to be about a man and a band who exuded uncompromising visions of artistry and greatness, who were each willing to risk their reputations as both individuals and a band to create the music that moved them, Bohemian Rhapsody is, at its best, simply standard. It is almost a masterclass in how to follow established formulas and minimize risk in filmmaking.
Which isn’t to say that it’s not entertaining. It is that, superficially. It’s entertaining in the same that bubblegum pop or network sitcoms are entertaining. It’s familiar, safe, predictable. The musical biopic, as a genre, has been hammered out and perfected over decades of attempts; box office numbers and awards have assured Hollywood of The Correct Way to give em what they want.
We begin with The Big Moment (in this case, Live Aid), walking backstage as The Subject (Mercury) prepares their Entrance. To the Rising Roar of an Ecstatic Crowd, they take the stage; enter the Fade Out, which takes us back to Years Ago before the fame and fortune (and everything that goes with it) when The Subject was just A Regular Guy. We witness the Star on the Rise, as The Subject finds their voice and their place, though the Elements of Tragedy hover over them. Reaching their True Heights, the Elements of Tragedy strike, forcing The Subject through Tumultuously Doomed Relationships and the Spiral of Drugs. These cause The Subject’s star to fall, bringing them to The Precipice of Demise, where they teeter helplessly until The Old Friend snaps them out of it. Head clear, they’re finally ready for The Big Moment. We return to where we began, and the audience gets their Dramatic Release.
You might recognize this as the exact formula that worked for Ray and Walk the Line and which was masterfully skewered in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Formulas are used because they work, certainly, but to use one to such an extent here feels like an insult to the legacy of Queen and the life of Mercury.
No amount of great acting can hide the reliance on this formula, even with a performance as fantastic as Malek’s. Fans have clamored for years for comedian Sacha Baron Cohen to play the enigmatic lead singer, and for years he was attached to the role before dropping out over creative differences. Malek, however, so embodies the role that one can longer imagine anyone else but him inhabiting the character of Freddie Mercury. He plays the part with nuance and humanity, at times seeming to channel Mercury’s actual presence and resurrecting him for the modern age.
As amazing as he might be, everything else about Bohemian Rhapsody is far too standard to give a second thought to. As an audience, we’re always a few beats ahead of the film, able to predict exactly where it’s going and when it’ll get there. Everything happens right when it’s supposed to, and right as it should. The film operates less by a beating heart than by a metronome, becoming just rote recital rather than sublime revelation. It hurts that such an amazing performance is encaged by such a mediocre script and story.
Beyond the mere predictability of the story itself, the film is littered with hackneyed shorthand that serves as a way to shoehorn in unneeded drama as well as popular Queen songs. Take, for example, a fight in the rehearsal space between Mercury and May, ended suddenly by John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) thumping the bassline to “Another One Bites the Dust.” Acrimony dissipates, and we cut to a montage of the band performing the song on the road. This isn’t the only time something like this happens and each time it does the film seems to want us to think that this is a masterstroke of genius, rather than a tired trope that has been worn out for years.
Queen deserves better. Freddie deserves better. Audiences deserve better. This is Queen in name only, doing little justice to the legacies of one of the most important and influential bands and lead singers of the modern era. A better, richer, and more authentic Queen and Mercury experience could be had by just staying home, picking any two of your favorite Queen albums, and listening to them back to back while reading the Wikipedia entries for Queen and Mercury.
Bohemian Rhapsody is now playing in theaters everywhere.