‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Review: We Will Rock You (in a Safe, Sanitized Fashion)

For a movie that holds up Queen as innovators, Bohemian Rhapsody is remarkably generic and predictable. At one point in the movie, Queen, rebels that they are, are arguing with Ray Foster (Mike Myers, who keeps lapsing into his Fat Bastard voice), the head of EMI, over the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. As Queen celebrates their own masterpiece and touts the song as breaking the mold, Foster fires back, “I love formulas!” And the movie, which is credited to director Bryan Singer, but was finished by Dexter Fletcher after Singer was fired for disappearing from the set, is more than happy to abide by formulas. You won’t walk out of Bohemian Rhapsody with a greater understanding of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) or the artistry of Queen’s music. But Queen members Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), who served as producers on the film, get to craft their own mythology with Bohemian Rhapsody. They want you to know that they’re legends; they just never bother to explain how or why.

The film plays by the standard biopic rules, starting back at the formation of Queen in 1970 and tracking them through the ups and downs of their career with Mercury serving as the protagonist. It’s a film that understands that Mercury has to be front and center, just as he was with the band, but that May, Taylor, and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) were also part of Queen and contributed to the band’s success. However, as Queen tries to navigate stardom, Freddie begins to fray, especially with the negative influence of Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Thankfully, since this is a traditional rock band biopic that never takes any unexpected twists or turns, redemption is only a reunion and a concert away.

Bohemain Rhapsody always feels like a fan film made by Queen. It comes off as by the band, for the band, and that encases everything in a protective glass shell that ultimately weakens the picture. At best, you come away with a reminder of the Queen songs you enjoy, and maybe you’ll be tempted to buy the Greatest Hits album if you don’t own it already. But it’s a film that’s always comes off as being crafted from the outside, the kind of picture you would make after reading Queen’s Wikipedia page. That’s not going to help you understand their artistry or what made them unique or why Queen endures while other rock bands from the era have faded away. Bohemian Rhapsody is two hours of Queen appreciation, which means there’s really no room for nuance or anything remotely dangerous.

Where the film starts to get insulting is how it treats Mercury’s homosexuality. The film pulls as far away as possible from Mercury’s homosexuality while still acknowledging that he’s gay. His closest relationship is with his wife Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and he constantly professes her love for her even though there’s no specificity to their relationship and Malek and Boynton have no chemistry. The primary negative relationship in Mercury’s life is Prenter, and homosexuality, as it’s depicted in Bohemian Rhapsody, is a destructive force full of empty relationships, meaningless sex, and coarse manipulation. The film tries to tack on a positive gay relationship at the end, but it rings hollow because again, there’s no specificity to it.

For some, the film may succeed due to Malek’s performance, but while I’ll agree that Malek is a talented performer, he doesn’t seem to have a unique angle on Mercury, which isn’t really his fault because the script never gives him one. He’s got a strained relationship with his father, but that never becomes a thing. Freddie is depicted as being lonely, but the movie never builds on it. Because the driving force of Bohemian Rhapsody is “Queen is legendary”, there’s no room for anything authentic or uncomfortable. There are only the ebbs and flows that the genre demands, and no one involved in the filmmaking process made a point to question those genre tropes. That leaves an actor like Malek with not much to do except sing Mercury’s songs and rely heavily on giant fake teeth to complete the impression.

I’m sure Bohemian Rhapsody will win over some Queen fans, but that’s a trick. Liking Bohemian Rhapsody because you’re a Queen fan is akin to liking Batman & Robin because you’re a Batman fan. It’s possible to tell the story of Queen and do it justice, but no one seemed interested in telling that story. They wanted something pre-packaged, easily digestible, and laudatory. But great art isn’t supposed to be comforting, and Queen didn’t make waves by being a safe, predictable band. By unquestioningly celebrating Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody does both the band and Mercury a great disservice.

Rating: D+

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018 movies

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