Stop me if you’ve seen this before: the story of a guy plucked from obscurity whose talent helps make a band a huge hit, then because of drugs and booze and bad advice and ego, the group gets torn apart, only to be put back together again for a glorious finale.
If you believe “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that’s all you need to know about Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen who died in 1991 of AIDS-related pneumonia. Unfortunately, to maintain a PG-13 rating, the moviemakers whitewashed the lifestyle that led to Freddie contracting HIV. While there are very short scenes of him cruising gay clubs, at no point do you see Freddie in bed with a man. Some quick kisses, yet, but not much more. In fact, there’s more physical stuff with his girlfriend Mary, but even that is presented in a sanitized fashion with no nudity (because couples at home in bed together always keep the covers pulled all the way up, right?).
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten penned two previous scripts that I praised highly (“Darkest Hour” and “The Theory of Everything”), but in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he spends too little time showing the creative process of Freddie, guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, and bassist John Deacon. Simply having Freddie stare off into the distance until he’s struck by inspiration and jots down his ideas on a piece of paper is not enough. There is a sequence about the production of the title tune and another about the hand-clapping, foot-stomping opening of “We Will Rock You,” but nowhere near as many details as Queen’s compositions deserve (see the Brian Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy” for examples of how it should be done).
The movie opens with Freddie about to walk onstage at Live Aid, the massive concert Bob Geldof organized in London and Philadelphia in 1985 as a benefit for African famine relief. Then it flashes back for the Freddie/Queen origin story, which includes far too much about his parents and home life, although at least we didn’t have to sit through his boyhood years. The problem with starting with Live Aid is that it also serves as the climax of the movie, but not until we’re forced to endure several scenes in which we’re supposed to wonder if Queen — by then broken up because of Freddie’s misguided desire for a solo career — would reunite to play the big show. There’s no suspense at the end if you’ve already given it away at the beginning. That would be like starting “The Usual Suspects” with Kevin Spacey’s character announcing in voiceover, “I’m Kayser Soze.”
That film was directed by Bryan Singer, who also did several “X-Men” movies and gets credit for helming “Bohemian Rhapsody,” even though he was fired midway into the shoot after allegations of child sexual abuse years before became public. After Singer’s departure, Dexter Fletcher took over, so he’s the one we can blame for the over-editing of almost every musical sequence in the movie. He jumps around too quickly, like a squirrel with ADHD, never letting us have any particular vantage point for more than a couple of seconds.
He also uses a strange graphic to showcase the cities Queen visited on its first American tour, first identified — in a way I’ve never seen on screen before — with the dumbly generic “Midwest USA.” Then we get the band members saying, “Thank you, Cleveland,” “We love you, Detroit,” “Thanks, Houston,” and on and on.
As for the performances, it feels funny to say about someone playing Freddie Mercury, but Rami Malek’s performance is a little over the top, although he does nail most of the stage moves. However, I found myself wondering throughout the first third of the movie when he’d grow into the dental prop he had shoved under his top lip to approximate the look of Freddie’s teeth. The rest of the well-cast unknowns playing the band members are quite good, particularly Gwilym Lee as Brian May.
Having played Queen’s music on the radio for many years, I’m quite familiar with their tunes and was disappointed that the movie misrepresents their recording history and release dates for songs. For instance, while the film shows us Queen becoming an immediate hit with their first album, the truth is that it was a bomb, and their second didn’t do much better. It wasn’t until “Sheer Heart Attack” that they had a hit with “Killer Queen”, which got them a gig opening in the US for Mott The Hoople (not as headliners). But that did lay the groundwork for their 1975 masterpiece “A Night At The Opera.”
Even there, the movie gets it wrong, claiming that Freddie wanted to use that title because he loved opera. No, he loved the Marx Brothers movie by that name, which is why he used it — and called the follow-up album “A Day At The Races,” another Marx movie title. The film also misplaces the song “Fat Bottomed Girls” in the early 1970s, when the band didn’t even record it until 1978. That may seem nitpicky, but it’s those kinds of details that matter in a biopic.
With all of that said, there are two things at the end of the movie that are really good. One is the Live Aid sequence, which allows Malek to really strut his stuff as Mercury. The other is the actual footage of Mercury and Queen doing “Don’t Stop Me Now” that’s played over the end credits. It’s a lot of fun to see, but I was shocked that some of the people in the theater I was in walked out as soon as it started. You came to see a movie about Freddie Mercury but you’re leaving while the real thing is on screen?
There’s no doubt that “Bohemian Rhapsody” will increase the number of times Queen songs are streamed on Spotify and Pandora, and radio stations will once again overplay the title tune. Unfortunately, the movie is not nearly as compelling as its subject matter or the music that lives on 40 years later.
I give “Bohemian Rhapsody” a 5 out of 10.