Queen is one of the classic bands that define what rock and roll is, so it comes with great disappointment not much is rock and roll about the big screen depiction of their journey, Bohemian Rhapsody. X-Men director Bryan Singer‘s movie is missing the inspiring, infectiously energetic, and high-spirited beauty of the band’s music. It’s an overly conventional biopic about an unconventional band — a group that saw themselves as misfits, and yet Singer treats them like almost every other rock band we’ve ever seen in a movie before.
After opening during the the lead up to the band’s breathtaking 1985 Live Aid performance, Anthony McCarten‘s script transitions to young Farrokh Bulsara aka Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) working at Heathrow airport and living at home with a loving sister and mother and a disappointed father, who is not much more than a shallow stand in for conventional dreams and disenchantment over his son’s choices. Mercury’s family members, like his often frustrated and equally inventive band mates, are rarely given time to grow in scenes.
Most of Singer’s blockbuster work has never exactly been intimate, but even with a run-time of over two hours, he never digs deep enough into Mercury’s relationships with the men and women in his love life and his band including guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Taylor), who he meets one night out when he witnesses one of their performances. As fate would have it, the three musicians and songwriters meet Mercury immediately after they lose their lead singer to another band. Not long after their paths cross and the four of them join forces, the group rapidly evolves into the almighty Queen and begins writing hits like “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” and touring the world.
So much of the story is how one of the band members thought of a classic beat or song, and while that information is wonderful to read about, it’s more repetitive than cinematic in Bohemian Rhapsody. All the light bulb moments and flashes of inspiration — we all know where they’re going — aren’t very revealing scenes and don’t bring us significantly closer to the band. They tell us little beyond the initial spark of a song or only remind us of what great songs Queen produced, so these grand and inspiring moments of creativity in real life come off as routine biopic cliches in Bohemian Rhapsody.
There are few genuinely electric moments, mostly because Malek’s magnetic and often thrilling performance is a portrayal that never reeks of imitation. Capturing even a tiny spark of Freddie Mercury’s charisma would’ve been impressive, but it’s a real feat how much the Mr. Robot star does Mercury’s transfixing showmanship justice. When Mercury plays to a stadium crowd (or the world in the case of Live Aid), Malek makes the thundering applause and cheers feel earned and believable with his liveliness and energy. The actor elevates the depiction of Live Aid into something more than a beat-by-beat, CG-infested recreation of one of the most iconic live performances, which McCarten and Singer arguably treat as a disingenuous feel-good moment after Mercury has been diagnosed with HIV. (The concert took place in ’85, which was two years before Mercury was diagnosed, so Queen’s Live Aid performance is turned into something it was not.)
Even though Malek’s commitment is palpable in every scene, his authenticity is out of touch with the rest of the narrative, which focuses on one particularly redundant chapter of the Freddie Mercury story. That out-of-place story line is the parasitic assistant, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who poisons Mercury’s life and isolates him from his band mates and a woman Mercury loved, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). The whole evil assistant story line is right out of a ’90s thriller with an obsessive Prenter disrupting Mercury’s life with his toxic influence.
McCarten and Singer dedicate a disappointing amount of screen time to this man, and arguably give him more attention he doesn’t deserve. Is a conniving right-hand man really a major part of what defines Mercury’s far-too-short journey on this planet? Was Prenter that critical to his life story? More important than Mercury’s father, mother, and sister, who aren’t given half the amount of screen time? True story or not, it’s an uninteresting character and subplot that doesn’t add much substance to the story of Queen and Freddie Mercury.
Singer, who was fired by 20th Century Fox with two weeks left of production and replaced by Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle), doesn’t get that sense of closeness to an artist like the most satisfying biopics tend to do. Now, there are a few sequences that do humanize the iconic front-man, like when Singer shows Mercury’s loneliness during a phone call between him and Mary, but the director’s perspective on Queen has a general coldness to it. The biopic is never as emotional as it should be, as lively as it should be, or as heartbreaking as it should be. Moments that should be devastating or inspiring aren’t. The band talks about how much they love each other, but on a deeper gut level, Singer never makes you feel it.