Almost anyone can name a song by Queen. From “Another One Bites the Dust” to “We Will Rock You,” the group’s music is hardly limited to music elitists who believe listening to older music is a superior personality trait. Queen’s extensive discography has stood the test of time, filled with memorable lyrics that can make casual listeners and die-hard fans alike burst into song instantaneously. The cultural endurance of the band’s work has cemented the band as one of the most recognizable names in music history.
But the recently released “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Bryan Singer-directed biographical drama about the band and its influential lead singer, Freddie Mercury, is a bland and underwhelming attempt at capturing the band’s legacy for the big screen. Despite an impeccable soundtrack of the band’s standout tracks, along with Rami Malek’s superb performance as the lead singer that flawlessly captures Mercury’s distinct mannerisms and infectious stage presence, the film falls short of doing Mercury, and in turn, Queen, justice.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its strong points. For example, Ben Hardy’s portrayal of drummer Roger Taylor as he submits to Mercury’s wishes to hit the famous falsetto note in the film’s titular song is magnetic. In turn, Malek’s crazed eyes as he demands Taylor’s achievement of a satisfactorily high note are electrifying to watch.
This scene is emblematic of Singer’s peek into the creative process behind one of the most widely recognized songs in history. But instances such as these are destroyed by the film’s attempts at being self-aware.
For example, the scene of producer Ray Foster (Mike Myers) berating Mercury and emphasizing how no one would want to listen to the apparent mess of genres — rock, opera, pop and more — he blended to create the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” is soon followed by floating news headlines of music critics’ lukewarm and confused response to the song. Singer was perhaps aiming for the audience to recognize the tongue-in-cheek humor of the moment, in which it was clear that critics once doubted the brilliance of the band we have now immortalized.
Yet moments like this happen too frequently to be clever or engaging. There’s the scene in which Mercury is insistent on creating a sound more palpably similar to club music, which is heavily protested by the band — the built-up tension is easily and frustratingly alleviated with the opening bassline of “Another One Bites the Dust.” The band excitedly listens to the repeated riff while we as an audience are given another reason to roll our eyes.
The strongest aspect of the film is undoubtedly Malek’s performance. He is so in tune with the essence of Freddie Mercury that there is no trace of Malek the actor when he enters the scene. From his strut to the small, nervous gnawing at the lip with those prosthetic teeth, Malek truly is a master of his craft, bringing Mercury’s scenes to life with an attention to detail in capturing even the smallest gestures.
A few days after clips of the film were released, the final scene, involving one of the band’s last live performances — the band’s iconic 1985 Live Aid concert — went viral. On Twitter, clips of the actual performance footage were placed alongside scenes from the film — they were nearly identical. The film is strong in its consistent and acute thoroughness in replicating the band’s visual legacies, from the bell bottoms to the big hair.
But the visual strength of the film is overshadowed by the trite script. There are moments when the film feels stilted and oftentimes leans into the territory of corny dialogue. One of the group’s arguments, involving Mercury’s decision to diverge from the band’s style in order to compose the beginning of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” feels as though it was inserted to imbue the film with a sense of reality, demonstrating that the band members actually argued with each other. Everything else about the group’s rise to fame is too seamless in the film. The few moments that were intended to make Queen seem more like a band with a number of trials and tribulations feel almost inauthentic.
Early concerns about the film downplaying Mercury’s sexuality were proved valid. Online, there are many people who have vocalized being upset at the filmmakers for clearly sanitizing how Mercury’s sexuality was an integral role in the development of Queen’s sound. Several of Mercury’s romantic relationships feel like sidenotes to his life story, halfhearted attempts to appease the audience members who demanded an accurate portrayal. Malek himself has openly confessed his personal wish that the filmmakers had spent more time exploring Mercury’s relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), his longtime partner. The filmmakers’ failure to explore the intricacies of Mercury’s sexuality in more detail makes it clear that they were trying too hard to fit a PG-13 rating — but this glossed over, and even erased, important aspects of Mercury’s identity.
Ultimately, even with its corny visuals, stilted script and refusal to address Mercury’s sexuality more directly, the most upsetting aspect of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is simply that there are few scenes in the movie that are even memorable. In what should be an attempt at capturing the history of Queen and its massive influence on the music and culture of a generation, it falls flat. The film trades up authenticity just to appeal to a wider audience. The filmmakers deny generations of fans a genuine look at Mercury’s life and instead hand us the sanitized version they think we want. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as a whole, fails to live up to the cultural legacy of Mercury and Queen as a whole — a shame for moviegoers, listeners and fans alike.
Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected].