“Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t rock me, it isn’t a champion, but it didn’t bite the dust, either. Blessed by the kind of phenomenal performance that can salvage a debatable film, this portrait of Queen’s superstar frontman Freddie Mercury is bestrewed with carbon-dated music biopic clichés. Yet, the viscerally exciting work of Rami Malek in the lead rescues the enterprise from being entirely the same old same old. If the film were an album, Malek would be the unabashedly enjoyable song that everybody remembers.
The film follows 15 years in Mercury’s personal and professional life (adding snippets from a longer timeline in non-chronological order for dramatic effect). It gives us a singular music star as a vain, obnoxious, drug-snorting, hard-partying hedonist, but also a broken soul searching for peace and acceptance.
That’s the same thicket of triumph and tragedy we’ve seen in recent films about James Brown, Hank Williams, Brian Wilson, Roy Orbison, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, not to mention the new remake of “A Star Is Born.” It feels ill-suited to a story about a band that didn’t follow formulas.
It follows Mercury from his youth as Zanzibari immigrant Farrokh Bulsara, working beside racist baggage handlers at London’s Heathrow Airport, to wowing the biggest concert in rock history, 1985’s Live Aid benefit show at Wembley Stadium. Given the ripe subject of an old-school band being led by a flamboyantly gay vocalist at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, the story certainly has enough material to prop up a big, flashy rock extravaganza that hits every beat.
Which could be what you would expect from an accomplished director like Bryan Singer, whose roots reach from “The Usual Suspects” to re-energizing the superhero saga in the early X-Men films. With the screenplay written by Anthony McCarten (author of the nuanced Churchill portrayal “Darkest Hour” and the Stephen Hawking biography “The Theory of Everything”), the project feels like a promise largely unfulfilled.
Although Singer still gets the directing credit, he was fired from the project for unspecified reasons and replaced by Dexter Fletcher, an actor with only a handful of directing credits (most notably “Eddie the Eagle”). That couldn’t have helped.
Whoever is responsible, the result is a pedestrian film in which almost no one matches Mercury’s inimitable talent. Rather than a life in full, it shows us a litany of plot points presented with all the thrills of a Wikipedia entry.
The band is implied to be the substitute family Mercury sought when his working-class immigrant parents (Meneka Das and Ace Bhatti) didn’t love him properly, but neither side is drawn with enough personality to feel meaningful. Lucy Boynton is as good as the story allows playing Mary Austin, who falls in love with Freddie but who recognizes he’s a gay man before he accepts it himself.
As a composite-character record executive, Mike Myers comes across as inauthentic as the cartoonish makeup camouflaging him. We don’t gain much insight into the challenges of generating rock classics, either. The opening riff of “Another One Bites the Dust” or “Somebody to Love” crops up at practice, and, the next thing you know, the band is performing the songs to a cheering concert audience.
Yet, despite the trite and sanitized account of Mercury’s stardom-fueled drug and sex compulsions, Malek’s mercurial performance takes us a bit inside what gripped the notoriously private man. His performance suggests that while the love of a crowd brought out a roaring beast, Mercury was privately a deer in the headlights. His hedonism seems less like a narcissistic pursuit of pleasure than a retreat from pain. It’s a sympathetic yet unsentimental representation of a brilliant and difficult man, the closest thing the film has to a fully realized character.
And then there’s the musical and vocal fireworks of the band on stage, the all-important bedrock of the film, and the one aspect that it really nails. There are enough masterpieces on the soundtrack to drive you into an instinctual stomp-stomp-clap, and the extended Live Aid finale feels like being in the wings at Wembley. It’s a spectacular re-creation of a moment capping a career that left an important mark on pop music and popular culture.
While there are early points when you can’t wait for the film to end quickly, the climax is a gorgeous Hail Mary pass that wins the game.
★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language.)