In Bohemian Rhapsody, there is no life event or band feud that doesn’t lead to an iconic, era-defining Queen song. In an early post-coital glow, Freddie Mercury tosses off some notes upside down on a piano, which just so happen to comprise the opening section of the title song. When Mercury is late to a recording session, the band stomps out the tension by discovering the future beat of “We Will Rock You.” A dustup over a manager’s unceremonious firing is overcome by the bass riff from “Another One Bites the Dust.” The movie, a long-troubled and ultimately confused hybrid of Queen tribute and Freddie Mercury biopic, seizes these moments with a big dumb grin on its face, shameless in its embrace of music-biopic clichés. What does it mean that they also often put a big dumb grin on my face? At least for a chunk of its two-hour–plus runtime, Bohemian Rhapsody takes the eye-rollers endemic to these movies and turns them into something close to infectious delight.
If only those sequences were the entire movie. Instead, Bohemian Rhapsody wants not only to celebrate Queen’s triumphs but also to decipher and eventually deify Mercury, who needs zero help from this movie—and whose complicated legacy the film only manages to defile. Directed by Bryan Singer, at least until he was fired and replaced late in production by Dexter Fletcher, the film is seduced by the temptation for sweep. After an obligatory opening sequence set just before a late-career triumph (in this case the band’s performance at Live Aid), the movie reveals that, like Dewey Cox, Freddie Mercury “needs to think about his entire life before he plays.” At this point it flashes back to the early 1970s, as Mercury, then Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara, first stumbles into Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) outside a venue, in one of its many consolidations of the band’s origin story. Soon—very soon, thanks to the furious pacing—they are racing toward their hits, record deals, and venues around the world. The movie never really slows down.
Singer directs the band’s rapid ascent with a fluid, slick camera and a regrettably polished production design, making supposed ’70s rock venues look more corporate than the rockified 20th Century Fox logo that precedes the film, with the searchlights accompanied by squealing electric guitars rather than the usual brass. But his hunger to get from one event to the next, for all its elisions, actually benefits a movie that doesn’t have much to say about the band it chronicles. There’s no time to dwell on details when we’re rushing from New Orleans to the studio to Rio and back, with only doltish record executives—and a stunt performance of one by Mike Myers, in heavy makeup—standing in the way. It’s a fun and sometimes inspired zigzag to the top, a blur of groupies and neon titles guiding us through years and locations. (This is probably a good place to note May and Taylor are co-producers and longtime developers of the project, so if it ever feels like the movie slips from fan service to servicing its subjects, it’s easy to see why.) Even as not much else happens, Bohemian Rhapsody never quite feels like a hollow vessel for expensive music rights, in part because of its unusually strong central ensemble, with actors who play off each other like a band that’s been together for a while, despite a screenplay (by Anthony McCarten) that has only fleeting interest in anyone but Mercury.
As for Malek’s much-anticipated, near-impossible role as Mercury? It is … a curiosity. Especially early in the movie, Malek’s flitty energy feels like affectation, as does his performance of Mercury’s severe overbite, which he reportedly tried to master with a set of fake teeth. But as Mercury ages into his signature look, which mercifully requires less makeup-department fuss for Malek, the 37-year-old actor stage dives into the kind of meticulous lip-sync battling that has come to mark the genre, and hits his stride (or, specifically, his strut). Particularly at the aforementioned Live Aid concert, the first scene he shot, Malek summons a ghostly power, with studied physicality and an increasingly feral look in his eyes as the crowd cheers louder.
But later in the film, Bohemian Rhapsody and Malek often suffer gravely when the band leaves the stage. Much of the prerelease anger about the movie, admittedly premature, focused on whether it would gloss over Mercury’s sexuality and messy relationships, a disputed and complex part of his legacy. In fact, those elements are not ignored by the movie at all, although you may just wish they had been. Early on, Mercury is already exchanging heated glances with young men, but a tender romance between Mercury and Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) punctuates the first act and, in a way, the entire movie. When their romantic relationship dissolves as Mercury goes on tour and quietly seeks out men on the road—“It was fairly obvious when the visitors to Freddie’s dressing room started to change from hot chicks to hot men,” as May put it last year—the film imagines a scene where Mercury comes out as bisexual to Austin, only for her to correct him and tell him he’s gay, a notion he doesn’t challenge.
The frankness is admirable—but then the movie quickly takes to linking Mercury’s emerging sexuality with his pathologies. As he goes solo and embraces his queerness, he also veers rapidly out of control, in the grip of a conniving gay personal manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who seems to sinisterly enable a lot more than booze and drugs. In one especially egregious sequence, Mercury descends spookily into a red-hued gay sex club, glassy-eyed, to the tune of “Another One Bites the Dust,” where I suspect the movie wants us to understand he has contracted HIV. Meanwhile, his only hope of redemption is his tether to his old heterosexual life, Austin, who almost literally pulls him out of a drug den and prompts him to renounce his new life and the people in it, whom he compares—in a truly bizarre and loaded speech—to “dirty, rotten fruit flies,” as a baptismal rain falls from above.
It’s one thing for Bohemian Rhapsody to explore Mercury’s struggles with his sexuality and relationships and their consequences. It’s another to use them as a convenient backdrop for Queen’s highs and lows, an addiction he had to overcome to be a great artist again. In a further sign of the film’s crude agenda, after that cleansing rain, it has Mercury return to his bandmates to beg them to take him back days before the climactic Live Aid concert in 1985. Then, during the band’s reunion rehearsals, he reveals to them his AIDS diagnosis. (In real life, the band had returned from a world tour less than two months earlier, and Mercury apparently didn’t reveal his AIDS diagnosis to them until 1989.) As the group rushes to prepare, Mercury is frail, and his voice seems to be going. His AIDS becomes a tool of suspense and fuel for the emotional release of the performance. After all this, a late and decidedly sanitized effort to include Mercury’s relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) feels like a comically weak effort at a correction.
If Bohemian Rhapsody’s superficial gloss on the band’s rise sometimes feels like a useful feature, the hackneyed way it treats Mercury’s life and fall is close to fatal. And after you leave the theater, you may find that first part isn’t such an asset after all. The climax, a long re-creation of the Live Aid concert, is a moment of redemption and deification that Singer directs with rousing intensity and obvious affection. Malek is at his best delivering, and excitedly receiving, exultations to and from the crowd. But watch the same 20-minute set on YouTube when you get home, as I did, and it reveals just how ersatz and perhaps pointless Bohemian Rhapsody really is. Sometimes it’s better to leave it all behind and face the truth.