Bohemian Rhapsody (United Kingdom/United States, 2018)

November 01, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bohemian Rhapsody Poster

The most compelling thing about Queen has always been the music. The story behind the band, like the stories behind many bands, is a combination of the banal, the tragic, and the clichéd. For this “based on a true story” movie, the filmmakers leaned heavily on the last element of those three, making significant changes to the historical facts to create a villain, insert elements of pathos where they didn’t exist, and give Queen’s trajectory a more “dramatic” arc. What saves Bohemian Rhapsody from being an historically inaccurate train wreck is the strength of the musical sequences, which are electric. With actor Rami Malek capturing Freddie Mercury’s dynamic stage presence, there are enough moments to almost make it worthwhile. It’s too bad no one working on the production recognized the disparity in quality between the performance/non-performance scenes or they might have leaned more heavily on the former at the welcome expense of the latter.

Behind the scenes, the production of Bohemian Rhapsody was riddled with controversy, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the result is as uneven and ultimately disappointing as it is. The first stirrings of unease occurred when the original actor tapped to play Mercury, Sacha Baron Cohen, departed due to “creative differences.” Then, during production, director Bryan Singer was fired (allegedly) because of frequent absences and clashes with other members of the production. (The final two weeks of the shoot, post-production, and reshoots were handled by Dexter Fletcher, who had at one time been tapped to direct the movie. Since DGA regulations assigned Singer with the sole directorial credit, Fletcher is listed only as an Executive Producer.)

Although ostensibly about the formation and rise to fame of Queen between 1970 and 1985, Bohemian Rhapsody is heavily tilted toward telling the story of the band’s quicksilver, charismatic lead singer and front man, Freddy Mercury. The other three members of the quartet - John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and Brian May (Gwilym Lee) – are supporting players, as are Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), Freddie’s “one true love” (one-time lover and lifelong best friend), and Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), the manager who slept with and manipulated the singer. The movie tracks Freddie’s life and times during the 1970s and into the 1980s, opting for a “greatest hits” strategy that focuses on the development of several of Queen’s biggest songs as well as key moments from Freddie’s life – his admission to Mary that he’s gay, his dumping of manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen) in favor of Prentice, his increasing flamboyance in the 1980s, and (of course) Live Aid.

Unfortunately, despite a strong performance by Malek, who transforms himself physically into Mercury’s avatar, the movie never finds its footing. The concert re-creations, which all use original Queen soundtracks, are effective but the dramatic moments that comprise the lion’s share of the running time lack power. Part of the problem comes from trying to capture too much material – fifteen year’s worth – in two hours. Another part comes from “juicing up” the story to make it more “cinematic.” (The movie is especially guilty of playing fast-and-loose with the timeline. One notable change is to have Freddie discover that he has AIDS in mid-1985 when, in reality, it wasn’t diagnosed until 1987, which was after the film’s timeline ends.)

The 1985 Live Aid performance, which bookends the film, is by far the most effective sequence Bohemian Rhapsody has to offer. Although truncated (with two songs, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “We Will Rock You,” eliminated, presumably because they had already been played earlier in the film), the 15-minute recreation of Mercury’s iconic Wembley performance is the movie’s highlight, and allows it go out on a high note. To accomplish this, Singer digitally merges the sound from Queen’s performance and footage from the concert (attentive viewers may note that the real Mercury appears briefly on one of the large video projections to the side of the stage) with the newly-shot material featuring Malek (lip-synching his heart out and doing his best to mimic Mercury’s every movement) and the other actors.

There’s an amusing in-joke to be found in the film. Mike Myers (the SNL comedian not the Halloween serial killer) famously used the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” to good effect in Wayne’s World, where he and co-star Dana Carvey are shown head-bobbing and lip-synching to the music. In this movie, Myers plays Ray Foster, a music executive who deems “Bohemian Rhapsody” to be…well…unworthy.

The problem with all this meticulous recreation is that, in the end, it rings hollow. After all, high quality recordings of the whole Live Aid performance are readily available and who wouldn’t rather watch the real Freddie Mercury as opposed to a talented mimic? For Queen fans, Bohemian Rhapsody offers enough of the band’s songs to accompany a strong dose of nostalgia. Others, however, may see this as little more than yet another story of a ‘70s/’80s rock band that assembles, has success, breaks up, then gets back together again following the epiphany of a key member. That tale, a patchwork of fact and fiction, becomes the film’s anchor because it is presented with minimal distinction – a description that should never be used for anything associated with Queen.

Bohemian Rhapsody (United Kingdom/United States, 2018)

Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: 2018-11-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Drama/Musical
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1