Bohemian Rhapsody opens with a cough. It’s July 13, 1985, the morning of Live Aid. Hours later, Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), lead singer of Queen, would have the 72,000 people gathered at London’s Wembley Stadium clapping hands to the beat of “Radio Gaga.” The band’s set that day would eventually be called one the greatest live rock performance of all time. But for now, Freddie’s lying in bed, the rasping of his throat having just jolted him from sleep. As an audience, we don’t yet know for sure that he’s been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, the disease that would eventually lead to his death in 1991, at the age of 45 — but the suspicion is enough to foster dramatic tension. Regardless, he heads out for the big day. The show must go on.
It’s a strong bit of foreshadowing, designed to play on fan recognition. Freddie’s wearing the Levis and white tank top that would come to be seared in the minds of the nearly 1.9 billion people watching the show in a live broadcast around the world. “Somebody to Love” plays in the background as the camera pans over Malek’s features, which mirror Freddie’s. It’s a sequence that is supposed to get you excited for what you’re about to see, and it does.
But the problem with Bohemian Rhapsody is that it never quite delivers on the big promise. We won’t get back to that day until the end of the movie, which is a shame, because the Live Aid performance — recreated almost perfectly, shot-for-shot — is the highlight of the two hour and 15 minute run-time.
In between, director Bryan Singer (who was fired by Fox during filming and replaced by Dexter Fletcher) leads us through the major points of Freddie and Queen’s biography, in a manner that feels both overloaded, and never quite enough. It’s possible the confused pacing is a result of the fraught environment on set. Singer’s constant absences caused the studio to halt production until someone else could be found, and cinematographer Thomas Newton Sigel reportedly had to direct scenes while he was MIA. But by attempting to show us everything, the film doesn’t linger in the moments that feel like they deserve more depth, or nuance. For example, Freddie’s (real name: Farrokh Bulsara) relationship with his parents, who immigrated to London from Zanzibar with the singer and his sister Kashmira in 1964, is woefully underexplored. So too are the later tensions that develop within the band when Freddie starts exploring his identity as a gay man. (Although, contrary to early fan fears, it does not erase that part of him, nor does it omit his AIDS diagnosis later in the film.)
And then there’s the things that the film does focus on. An incredible amount of time is spent developing Freddie’s romantic (and later, platonic) relationship with lifelong confidante Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), but the film never gives her anything interesting enough to do to warrant such a prominent role. Similarly, Freddie’s personal manager Paul Prenter (Alan Leech), whose toxic presence would contribute to him taking a break from the band, and nearly burning out on drugs and alcohol in Berlin, feels like a onenote villain to explain away deeper-rooted issues.
The action moves swiftly from Freddie’s beginnings as a baggage attendant at Heathrow who spends his nights watching a middling band called Smile perform in a college bar, to his joining them as lead singer once the original quits, certain they’ll never make it. Redubbed Queen, the band, now comprised of Freddie, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazello, aka little Tim from Jurassic Park), and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), enjoys a meteoric rise to success. The film barrels through their early years, pausing for a sequence on the making of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the classic song which gives the film its name, and into the height of their success, eventually marred by Freddie’s decision to pursue a solo career, and their reunion for the fateful Live Aid set.
It’s hard to believe that a movie about a band as innovative and eccentric as Queen could be so square. It’s a standard biopic, with predictable ups and downs. A version of everything depicted presumably happened in real life, but this film has never met a nail that it didn’t want to excessively hammer on the head. The moment where the band explains their vision for their fourth studio album A Night At The Opera to EMI executive Ray Foster (Mike Myers!) sounds like it was pulled from a Queen appreciation blog. They will not be limited by genre! They’re crossing boundaries, melding sounds like no one has before! All of this is true, of course, but to hear it come from May and Deacon is cringey and staged enough to make one understand Foster’s impulse to lay his head on the table. (Later, he would be known as “the man who lost Queen,” another point that hits us like a ton of bricks.)
That the film doesn’t meet expectations is no fault of the actors, who just aren’t given the space to go much beyond impersonation. Malek’s performance is the draw, and deservedly so. He’s radiant as Freddie, owning the singer’s outlandish costumes and movements with an infectious zest. And yes, he does look like him, even if the prosthetic teeth, meant to recall Freddie’s four extra incisors, are distracting. Every moment he’s onstage seems to scream at us to marvel at the skill of his impression, and in the end, I would rather watch the real Freddie than Rami-as-Freddie. Mazello, Lee and Hardy are perfectly cast looks-wise as Deacon, May and Taylor, but they’re there to be “the members of Queen,” not fully-fledged characters in their own right.
Even the Live Aid performance, which is loud, and bold, and powerful, is blighted by the nagging thought that one could just find the original on YouTube. And no matter how accurate the impression, no one can replicate the brand of magic that was Freddie Mercury, and Queen.
One thing that does come through, however, is that Queen was not Queen without all of its members. The real-life May, Deacon and Taylor too often get overshadowed by the legend of Freddie Mercury, especially in the aftermath of his death. But the film gives them their due in showing that it was May who came up with the stomp, stomp clap of “We Will Rock You,” so that the crowd could participate, and Deacon who wrote the incredible bass riff that defines “Another One Bites The Dust.” And Taylor, well, he wrote “I’m In Love With My Car.”
The movie isn’t un-enjoyable to watch. Watching Malek do his thing is certainly fun, and anytime a Queen song plays, it’s easy to forget that the movie is lacking. But if you were expecting anything out of the ordinary, you might be disappointed.
The songs are where the movie really gets its emotional core, and that alone is perhaps worth the ticket of admission. (One upside of a film like this is that people less familiar with Queen’s story and music might become new converts.) But that speaks to the power of Queen songs, not the film that’s supposed to give us the story and feeling behind them. The music is a constant reminder of how rare that kind of talent is — and that Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t quite have it.