Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Tom Hollander, Aidan Gillen
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One of the most unfortunate things a film can do is leave an audience wondering ‘what if’. Bohemian Rhapsody, which first began in 2010 with Sacha Baron Cohen playing Freddie Mercury before arriving in 2018 with Rami Malek in the lead role, suffers from a major case of the what-ifs.
What if the Mr. Robot star didn’t take the part? What if Bryan Singer wasn’t hired to direct it, before being ousted after multiple abuse allegations surfaced against him? What if the script, signed off by remaining Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, was able to break free and tell Freddie’s story without the band’s official seal of approval? By the end of the film, the chorus of what-ifs has gotten large enough to rival the choir of voices at the heart of the titular track.
Biopics, by their very nature, have to make compromises with reality to craft a story that can work on the screen. But Bohemian Rhapsody often seems to make the wrong choice, and, moreover, does so in the loudest way possible. Mercury’s bisexuality feels oddly unexplored, with the film mostly focusing on his relationship with wife Mary (the always-excellent Lucy Boynton), and when it does come up, it’s dismissed by her as him merely being gay – the kind of taboo-enforcing approximation that Channel 4’s The Bisexual recently explained to excellent effect. Then, when Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis arrives later in the film, it’s presented as motivation for doing the Live Aid concert in 1985, despite him actually being diagnosed after the gig.
Reordering events for dramatic effect is no crime, but coupled with its simplistic stance on Mercury’s love life – his complex relationship with manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who outed Mercury in an interview, reduces Prenter to a pantomime villain – Anthony McCarten’s screenplay gives us a bizarrely old-fashioned, apparently disapproving presentation of Mercury’s private life. Is that an intentional thing? Perhaps not, but it’s indicative of the movie’s wider problems that what is ostensibly a celebration of Mercury can come across like that. These niggles could have been redeemed by dedicating more time to exploring Mercury’s personal relationships, about which he was notoriously private, but Bohemian Rhapsody is trying to please Queen fans too, juggling a portrayal of a musical icon with a general band tribute. “You’re a legend,” Brian May (Gwilym Lee) tells Mercury. “We’re all legends,” comes the reply.
The result is a film that’s too shallow to ring fully true – something that isn’t helped by the initially distracting fake teeth Rami Malek wears, which take time to get used to, or the way the film blends his performance with some elements of lip-syncing (the film also uses recordings of Mercury’s voice and that of Canadian singer Marc Martel). Malek is not at fault here: once he warms up, struts and swaggers with charisma, and he’s supported by strong turns from Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor and an uncannily good Lee as May, plus Tom Hollander as supportive manager Jim Beach. The best scenes, tellingly, are when they’re together in the studio, giving us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the making of Queen’s groundbreaking songs. That, however, also frustrates, because the attempt to balance that with keeping a spotlight half on Freddie causes both halves of history to feel superficial. “Nobody wants to listen to a six-minute opera song!” declares a record label boss played by Mike Myers – a piece of self-aware casting that sums of the movie’s overall approach.
And yet, if you’re going to choose a surface, you can do a lot worse than Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody’s saving grace, apart from British helmer Dexter Fletcher stepping in to rally the production after Singer was removed, is the fact that it’s about such an innovative, irresistible band. The soundtrack alone helps to paper over some of the movie’s cracks while watching, with the finale – comprising the band’s Live Aid set – astutely chosen by the screenplay, which originated with Frost/Nixon and The Crown’s Peter Morgan. It’s a rousing climax, for all the film’s problems, with We Will Rock You’s stomping beat loud enough to drown out those what-ifs, if only for a few minutes.