What does a biopic owe an audience? Nothing, really. Or rather, I am of the mindset that a biopic owes us nothing more than any other film. Concrete veracity is secondary to emotional or intellectual honesty. So, while I’m often tempted, or even prone to harp on films that don’t respect history insofar as those events have been accurate recorded, a biopic, no matter how true or false, is a story. And like any story, a biopic has to live and die on the values espoused through the cinematic iterations of real people we see before us. Not on whether we like the people on screen, or whether we like their depictions, but whether or not those depictions work as drama. That connective tissue of reality serves to relate characters, but does not diminish their status as any less fictional approximations.
So, however I feel about Queen–they are a glorified singles band who I haven’t gone out of my way to listen to since I was 12–those impulses are null when discussing Bohemian Rhapsody, which is the Blimpie Subs and Sandwiches of historical fiction. I’m not saying Bryan Singer’s lame impression of a meaningful character study is unwatchable or a truly dangerous concoction, but one that nonetheless evokes the old Ian Malcolm chide, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t offensive or terrible in any kitschy, interesting sense. Rather, Singer’s film is glitzy, vacuous, physically agitating junk food.
Young baggage handler Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek) and his family are refugees from a Zanzibar. He’s a young man who wants to stand out as much as his highly prominent overbite, and has requested his parents and siblings address him as Freddie. One evening, Freddie has two fateful encounters. He catches the eye of a retail clerk Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who will become his wife and best friend. And, when the band he sees perform loses their lead singer and bassist, Freddie joins up with Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Lee (Ben Hardy), who will together form one of the seminal rock acts of their era under the name Queen. And the rest is history.
Seriously. The movie approaches every scenario with similar convenience. What follows is a series of epiphanic beats that show the seemingly effortless rise of Queen, the film constantly suggesting they were bound to be legends. This is perhaps the most egregious dramatic sin of Bohemian Rhapsody: The film creates the most minute conflict, which is immediately solved and celebrated. Whether this be how to fund their first album, or how “Another One Bites the Dust” is written, Singer creates problems within the scene that are presented as significant, only to work out with the first thought that comes to mind. Generally speaking, if a film needs an occasional deus ex machina, that’s fine. Movie’s gotta movie. But Bohemian Rhapsody is all DEM without any awareness.
And really, Bohemian Rhapsody just wants to have a good time. John Ottoman edits Bohemian Rhaposdy to death, cutting with a seizure-inducing rhythm. And given the breakneck pace of the narrative, one can never get too comfortable; the film just won’t sit still. Singer wants us to hear the songs, give us a sense that we were there in the room, and that we’re hanging out with the most epic rock band. Even when the film tries to give us some thrust in Freddie Mercury’s struggle with being an outsider, the film isn’t particularly investigative of him. His struggles with drugs, with his sexuality, and even his heritage are cursory at best. And though Malek gives Mercury enough depth and deflection to buoy an arc, the film not only has little to say about this, but can never quite mesh with the perpetual ascension of his band–a band who exist as indistinguishable, often squabbling figures who serve to show Freddie tough love, but whose own struggles with fame and music are never remotely acknowledged.
Somewhat predictably, when Bohemian Rhapsody actually settles on a moment, and really stays in a scene, the film leaves room to do genuinely moving work. The single best moment of Bohemian Rhapsody comes after Queen has released A Night at the Opera. They’ve so rich that Freddie buys huge houses for him and Mary that neighbor one another. By this point, Mary has left Freddie, realizing he is probably gay. Up to this point, Malek and Boynton have had some decent chemistry–Mary isn’t developed beyond how she figures into Freddie’s life. Freddie wants to remain friends, because he does still love Mary. Mary, on the other hand, is pretty hurt by Freddie, feeling and embarrassed and angry that he keeps her around as an accessory–sort what the movie does. One evening, shortly after moving into their lavish new quarters, Freddie telephones Mary. While they’re on the phone, Freddie looks to Mary from his own house, and asks her to have a drink with him as they talk. The scene quietly lingers, as though the conversation belongs in another film.
That the most intimate and apocryphal moment of Bohemian Rhapsody is the strongest is frustrating, especially when that scene proves that we didn’t need a greatest hits reel of Queen, which is what Bohemian Rhapsody is. Similarly uninspired is the structure with . which, checks off not only the most notable moments in Queen’s and Freddie Mercury’s career. A mix of The Doors and Walk the Line, with shades of The Imitation Game, everything one is expecting to find in Bohemian Rhapsody, they will find. The seamless songwriting, the break that hinges on a single moment–as opposed to years of arduous, painstaking work that goes into breaking through as a successful artist of any kind–the break-ups, the drugs and disillusionment, the make-ups, etc. All of this is an excuse to get the movie to Queen’s famous Live Aid performance, a sort of extended medley in the vein of All That Jazz. The Live Aid stretch lives and dies on one’s affinity for Queen and their songs.
Perhaps the most telling stretch of Bohemian Rhapsody surrounds the band pushing the film’s namesake as a lead single to a label executive (Mike Meyers). That’s right. The film got Wayne Campbell himself, whose iconic shotgun-riding sing-along is arguably the most iconic use of Queen’s prog rock staple in all of pop culture. Meyers tells the band that “Bohemian Rhapsody” will never be a hit. He’d rather push for “I’m in Love with My Car”–which, admittedly, is a pretty good runner in the first leg of the film. But Queen gets the song played. And then we’re treated to a smattering of critical soundbites panning the song. Giving the middle finger to what music snobs really think, and playing as though they are the underdogs. In the film’s quest of self-awareness, Bohemian Rhapsody trips over itself. Queen is lambasted by critics, who have seldom mattered to mass audiences, and we’re supposed to feel like Queen, a group had already seen success with their pre-A Night at the Opera endeavors, overcame the odds.
Similarly, Bohemian Rhapsody wants to appeal to everyone. And by all accounts, the film succeeded. Bohemian Rhapsody is among the highest grossing films of 2018. Despite enormous controversy surrounding Bryan Singer–who was replaced mid-production by Dexter Fletcher, and who has been the subject of a stomach-churning exposé–the film became a surprise awards player, with, at the time of this writing, Rami Malek as the frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar. Bohemian Rhapsody wants to be a crowdpleaser, and I can’t argue that the film hasn’t done just that. If all anyone wants is to watch an opulent, superficial dissection of a beloved band that is cut like a Bourne film, then Bohemian Rhapsody is on point. But because Bohemian Rhapsody chooses to be so simple, the film can never be more than a passing, fading novelty: A shallow, witless, assaultive cash-in on figures who could’ve inspired a better story, but settles for a deeply unintelligent, garish, unambitious slog hinging on a Freddie Mercury impression that’s only any good when the film forgets they’re Freddie Mercury.