I’m far from the first one to point this out, but Bohemian Rhapsody — a biopic of Freddie Mercury (and, to a lesser extent, the band he fronted, known as Queen) — is the sort of watered-down pablum that should be embarrassed to show its face in a world where Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story exists. Somewhat directed by probable pederast Bryan Singer (Dexter Fletcher directed the rest after the studio fired Singer), this is a perfect representation of the formulaic musical biopic that Walk Hard skewered so expertly.
It begins in 1985, with Mercury (Rami Malek) and his bandmates (Gwilym Lee as guitarist Brian May, Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor, Joe Mazzello as bassist John Deacon) about to take the stage at Live Aid. Then, of course, we must flash back (“Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays”), back to 1970, when toothy 24-year-old Persian immigrant Farrokh Bulsara is a baggage-thrower at Heathrow and aspiring musician. Already calling himself “Freddie” as he tries to escape his conservative Zoroastrian parents’ influence, our lad happens to go to a bar on the night that the band performing happens to lose its lead singer. Freddie suggests himself as a replacement; the band is like, “Uh, no, your teeth are ridiculous even for England”; Freddie sings a few bars and dazzles them. Their first performance with Freddie starts a bit rocky before he dazzles the audience, too. A star is born, just like clockwork!
All of the following things ensue:
– Montages of whirlwind tours where the names of the cities fly out at us over footage of the band playing.
– Famous songs’ origins are explained.
– A stuffy record executive (played by Mike Myers) tells them that the song we now know to be their signature song will never get radio airplay.
– The temperamental but brilliant lead singer alienates the band by showing up late and being selfish, and by using too much drugs and/or alcohol.
– The band tells him, “You need us” and he replies, “I don’t need anybody.”
– The troubled singer hits rock bottom and gets sick.
– The band looks the same in 1985 as they did in 1970, but the singer’s parents have aged 30 years.
Now, to turn Freddie Mercury’s specific story into a Generic Rock Star story, the screenplay (by Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything scribe Anthony McCarten) has to considerably tone down his sexuality and lifestyle. (As luck would have it, this also helps preserve the PG-13 rating.) Going against conventional wisdom about what makes for good filmmaking, this is a movie that likes to tell, not show. We’re told that Freddie’s substance abuse is a problem, but we never see him acting drunk or high, never see him actually using. (Except for a single shot of cocaine on a coffee table, there’s barely even a hint of which substances are the problem.) We’re told that he’s promiscuous, but the only person we ever see him with sexually is Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), his girlfriend from before he realized he was gay. We see that he’s hosting big parties at his home, but we have to take the movie’s word for it that they’re “wild.” Freddie says early on that he wants to name the band Queen “because it’s outrageous, and I can’t think of anyone more outrageous than ME,” but the movie’s idea of “outrageousness” is for him to flirt a little and call everyone “darling.” It’s 2018, but for some reason the movie is as chaste, straight, and discreet as if it were made in 1988.
Yet Malek’s performance as Mercury is outstanding, at least physically, capturing his stage presence and mannerisms. The filmmakers have used excellent trickery to blend Malek’s voice with Mercury’s real voice and an expert Mercury impersonator’s, and scenes of the band performing have the electric thrill of a concert. As a Generic Rock Star story goes, it’s fine — it checks off the boxes, hits the main points, gets most of the hits in there somewhere (“Under Pressure” is wedged in as an afterthought). But if you’re a Queen fan and/or have ever seen a musical biopic before, you’re liable to be disappointed.