Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello
Running time: 134 minutes
1970. Heathrow baggage handler Farrokh Bulsara (Malek) joins local band ‘Smile’ – made up of guitarist Brian May (Lee), bassist John Deacon (Mazzello), and drummer Roger Taylor (Hardy). In next to no time, the band – now known as Queen and Bulsara as Freddie Mercury – begin their galactic rise to the top, and into the annals of music history.
For a long time, Bohemian Rhapsody was just fantasy. Languishing for years in the feared ‘Production Hell’ due to the ‘creative differences’ monster regularly rearing its ugly head and a number of Freddies coming and going – Sacha Baron Cohen initially, and then, later, Ben Whishaw – the Queen biopic looked to have well and truly bitten the dust.
Then, in 2017, Bryan Singer – best known for his work on the X-Men franchise – came on board to direct, and Rami Malek took the Mercury mantle. And suddenly things looked to be falling into place. They had their Freddie; they had their film.
But, just two weeks before they were due to wrap up filming, complaints of director unprofessionalism and allegations of on-set rifts (amidst on-set riffs, of course) meant Singer was removed from the project, and Dexter Fletcher brought into the finish things up.
Everything about Bohemian Rhapsody seemed doomed to fail. But then, those images of a transformed Malek all Freddied up were released. And, suddenly, we were excited all over again.
The result – which still credits Singer as Director – exhibits a warm, if not somewhat contrived charm that quickly grows on you, but is only the proverbial paper covering a disappointingly thin excavation that hits all the familiar notes a little too often.
For large portions, Bohemian Rhapsody feels like little more than a big-budget game of Queen-song bingo. As the increasingly signposted ‘eureka’ moments pile up in equally unimaginative ways, the film’s first two thirds seem almost entirely an exercise in ticking-off the origin stories of Queen’s greatest hits. The usual big-hitters are all in there, of course; but it’s a gig that gets old rather quickly.
The frustrating thing about Bohemian Rhapsody is that it appears so unduly wedded to its glossy visual sheen and 12A certification that it consciously avoids its greatest source of narrative intrigue: the grittier, more poignant aspects of Mercury’s life.
What could have been an altogether more balanced and impactful film instead only brushes the surface of a man whose flamboyant stage persona works as a means of drowning out the screams of his own insecurities and the rising beat of his own sexuality (the latter being oddly downplayed). As it is, Bohemian Rhapsody too often avoids the darker issues surrounding Mercury’s rise to the top and the hardships faced by the band, meaning that when we inevitably reach the film’s more emotionally-charged moments – one in particular, complete with pathetic-fallacy rainfall – they often fail to hit the intended heights because of what has, or rather hasn’t, come before.
That said, Malek is far and away the best thing about Bohemian Rhapsody. Nailing both the look and mannerisms, Malek is electrifying as Mercury; owning both screen and stage as he struts in and out favour with band mates and managers alike but staying firmly in the hearts of fans. The film’s climactic 15-minute extravaganza – a wonderfully crafted, CGI-aided reconstruction of a packed Wembley stadium for 1985’s Live Aid concert – cements Malek’s portrayal as one of the most memorable this year and gives us an ending that very nearly eclipses all of Bohemian Rhapsody’s glaring shortcomings. So much so, that, just like Freddie’s legacy, you’ll want it to go on forever.
Is this the real life, is this just fantasy? Bohemian Rhapsody is probably a combination of the two. This is historical escapism that is both frustrating and joyous. But joyous just about swings it.