The stories of the British rock band, Queen, and the life of its lead singer, Freddie Mercury, are ones of personal identity, professional struggle and musical creativity. They are too many mountains of material for one film to climb, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” was destined for mediocrity when it decided to take on the challenge. Helmed by the insanely talented Rami Malek as the larger-than-life Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody” misses the mark, as it is a good movie musical but crumbles under historical inaccuracies, a storytelling identity crisis and a sanitization of Mercury’s past.
The film begins with Mercury, birth name Farrokh Bulsara, discovering the local music scene and his own vocal talent. It flows through Queen’s history like a greatest hits album, following the band’s professional success and behind-the-scenes struggles to the paramount 1985 Live Aid benefit concert. The best of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is colorful, loud and outrageous, with hairstyles to match.
It is a fittingly colorful era for “Bohemian Rhapsody” to tell its story, and with scenes from live performances, recording studios and Mercury’s personal life, it has the tools to do it well. Yet, it does not. “Bohemian Rhapsody” simply glosses over the issues, gives a good song-and-dance and calls it a night.
Somewhere in its effort to dramatize Queen’s story, “Bohemian Rhapsody” loses itself. Specifically, the film gets some of its history confused, from its subtle smearing of Mercury’s decision to pursue a solo career (something drummer Roger Taylor did years before Mercury’s 1985 solo debut album, “Mr. Bad Guy”) to its inaccurate depiction of the band’s reunion and its out-of-touch approach to Mercury’s sexual identity and romantic life.
In the film, Mercury’s HIV diagnosis unifies the band ahead of its Live Aid performance. However, according to Mercury’s partner Jim Hutton, the singer did not know of his HIV diagnosis until April 1987. Sure, there are scenes devoted to Mercury’s sex life and drug use, but not enough of them give audiences a comprehensive look into his life. It handles Mercury’s sexuality and identity struggles in a frivolous and dismissive way, almost shaming Mercury for his promiscuity. “Bohemian Rhapsody” seeks to focus on Mercury, but it does not delve into the icon deeply enough.
Despite this, Malek was indisputably born to play Mercury. He carries the film, inhabiting Mercury in a way that is raw and intentional. He breathes life into a figure that, now almost 27 years dead, might have felt hard to reach. It is for this reason, as well as the Live Aid sequence and its stellar costumes and setting, that “Bohemian Rhapsody” salvages some success.
This may be because of the developmental hell “Bohemian Rhapsody” found itself in. The film was originally announced with British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen attached as Mercury, later losing Cohen before considering a few replacements and finally settling on Malek. Director Bryan Singer was removed from the project in 2017 (though he still received directorial credit), forcing Dexter Fletcher to take over.
With all of this comes a possible muddling of visions. Cohen reportedly wanted to make the film far more outrageous by focusing on Mercury’s life of highs (parties, performances) and lows (loneliness) — something the surviving members of Queen did not support. One cannot help but think that this version of the film would have given Mercury his rightful cinematic ode.
Malek, however, makes the best of the situation he is in. Every performance, specifically the Live Aid sequence, is gorgeously shot, placing audiences in the front row, and with Malek on stage, they will want to watch him as closely as possible.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” presents an identity crisis. The film cannot decide if it is a Mercury film or a Queen film and ultimately does both unsuccessfully. Perhaps the stories of these subjects are simply too large to combine without losing too much from both. The film cannot showcase its material in its raw and unfiltered form, deciding to sanitize Mercury’s life and twist history for dramatic storytelling. It is saved by its focus on the music and Malek’s electric and undoubtedly award-worthy performance. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is made for the movie musical-loving audience, and it makes for a good movie musical. But that is not what it should have been.