MOVIE REVIEW: Bohemian Rhapsody
“BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY”— 2 STARS
Bohemian Rhapsody opens to set the stage for what will be Queen’s finest hour and the film’s big finale, the famous Live Aid concert of 1985. Director Bryan Singer’s go-to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel floats his camera through the opening credits backstage close enough to graze sound equipment, poised musical instruments, and rock-god bodies of 80’s decadence, fawning over every sensuous detail like a invisible hand caressing something it deems sexy. Along the way, the film’s title appears on the back of frontman Freddie Mercury as if the movie is on his shoulders. The blunt symbolism couldn’t be anymore appropriate.
Bohemian Rhapsody lives and dies through the vitality of its lead performer. Emmy winner Rami Malek gives a smashing performance that should skyrocket him into the Oscar conversation. He and the film thrive when the volume is turned up and the microphones are on. It withers when it stifles that provocative heat. What should and, frankly, deserved to be a line-blurring and envelope-pushing affair of affairs is, to borrow a pair of friends’ terms, “straight-washed” into something “puritanical” instead of free, open, and, most of all, potent. Allowing something this hot to go lukewarm is a cinematic crime.
LESSON #1: BORN TO PERFORM — Following the Parsi Zanzibar immigrant Farrokh Bulsara’s transformation into Freddie Mercury, Anthony McCarten, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, drafted a pedestrian biopic filled with the usual and predictable narrative footnotes you have seen in other films. You have a born talent that finds inspiration, shakes off a disapproving family, teams with other supportive artists, creates a new sound, and rises to a level of stardom to prove everyone wrong and relish in the riches with a prerequisite creative or personal stumble or two along the way.
One would think the story of Queen would feel or reveal itself to be as unique as their music. Alas, Bryan Singer’s exercise, one that got him fired and replaced by Eddie the Eagle and upcoming Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher, skims selectively shallow to merely connect Wikipedia dots, even with the creative consultant backing of original band members Brian May and Roger Taylor.
LESSON #2: LET YOUR FREAK FLAG FLY — Bohemian Rhapsody counts as a missed opportunity to fly the one of the proudest and most inspirational freak flags of modern celebrity history. There’s little boldness to the “be yourself” narrative. Oafishly simple jokes create corny puns of premeditated serendipity, including Mike Myers’ glorified cameo thinly aping his own place in the resurgence of Queen’s popularity that came from 1992’s Wayne’s World. Any challenges to dig deeper into demons of disposition and more ominous obstacles are replaced with a path of preordained success. It fails on its own words of “playing for the misfits.”
Rami Malek rose to the occasion and absorbed both the meek and maniacal mannerisms of the late legend. He suspends disbelief to see the character before the actor better than the long-attached Sacha Baron Cohen would have done being likely locked in the overdrive gear. He is surrounded by dead ringers in Gwilyn Lee (The Tourist), Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Joseph Mazzello (The Social Network) play May, Taylor, and John Deacon. All three steadily orbit Malek, but remain shadowed and ancillary. The same goes for the sanitized romantic entanglements embodied by Lucy Boynton playing Freddie’s muse girlfriend Mary Austin and Allen Leech as his constricting manager/partner Paul Prenter. Any truthful relationship drama is glossed over with easy embellishments and unexplored tangents.
LESSON #3: GOOD THOUGHTS, GOOD WORK, AND GOOD DEEDS — This lesson echoes the suffering and melodramatic wishes of Freddie’s father against the film itself. What should stand as showered compliments instead point to unfulfilled potential. Biopics like this are always large doses of hero worship, and this one is no different. Queen deserves celebration, meaning the thought were there. The talent was there too, including the rich and detailed contributions from costume designer Julian Day (Rush) and Aaron Haye (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), an elevated art director debuting as a full-fledged production designer, to lather us all over with period gaudiness. What’s missing are the deeds. Show the impact beyond the stagefront popularity.
In the end, Bohemian Rhapsody is little more than a mild after-school special capped off by the fireworks of a quick concert. To its entertaining credit, the film ends with a riotous and deftly choreographed recreation of Queen’s Live Aid set that fulfills the crowd pleaser aim of the of the movie. Bohemian Rhapsody may get us to raise our voices and sing along with old favorites. However, it won’t make us raise our eyebrows in the wrong result of how “nothing really matters.”