Critics seem to have taken against Bohemian Rhapsody with curious animosity. It’s not the film’s fault per se – directed in hodgepodge by both Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher, this is pretty inoffensive entertainment – but because it replaced a potentially more interesting take on the Queen story. When Sacha Baron Cohen was subbed for Rami Malek, in the role of lead singer Freddie Mercury, the project became much safer. If you’re after dramatic depth, you’ll be disappointed; if you’re happy with slightly sanitised fun, this will, indeed, rock you.
Two fundamental fault-lines undermine Bohemian Rhapsody‘s capacity to fly as a biopic. First and foremost, the sticky fingerprints of Brian May and Roger Taylor smudge all over the screen, spurring caution in Anthony McCarten’s script and smoothing over the odd rough edge. It would be wrong to call the film wholly genial but there’s a whole lot of worshiping at work here. ‘You’re a legend Fred,’ says Ben Hardy’s Taylor. ‘We’re all legends,’ replies Mercury. When the singer does go rogue, there’s no exploration of why or how. An early nod to his life pre-Queen – Mercury was born in Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara – is quickly sidelined, despite obvious tensions. No bad deeds stick and there’s always redemption to fall back on. We’re told that Freddie is frequently drunk but don’t see much evidence; his sexuality, meanwhile, is strangely sexless.
The second drawback would be that the story of Queen comes across, in the first hour at least, as a touch banal by rock ‘n’ roll standards. Their rise from student band to global sensation meets precious little resistance, whilst their talents are presented as fully formed from the off. As though by divine inspiration, radical ideas, refrains and lyrics appear to be plucked from thin air by each member of the band. In one ludicrous scene, Freddie is lying on a makeshift bed with then fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) when he leans back and, out of nowhere, plays the opening of Bohemian Rhapsody on a conveniently placed piano, years before he would actually write the track.
Personality clashes do flair up with increasing intensity as the film enters its second half but each time a new hit or concert comes along to save the day. In this version of events, it’s the predatory press and their clamouring readers, not to mention the slimy Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who are the felons and wrongdoers. There’s more meat here than many have given the film credit for but it’s too easy to switch off in the preamble. It’s a shame so unconventional a story is being told this conventionally.
Admittedly, that all sounds much more negative than the film actually deserves. Malek is sensational as Mercury, leading a strong cast with flamboyance and the occasional stab of poignance. Sequential on-stage performances are handsomely mounted – with ample colour and verve – whilst the soundtrack really is killer Queen. The grand finale of the film is a glorious recreation of Queen’s remarkable 1985 Live Aid showcase and it is a testament to the film, which will likely be re-evaluated by critics in the future, that the ten minute extension does feel justified. This climax is by some great distance the most exciting part of the film, lying somewhere between nostalgic and barnstorming, and sends things out on an electric high.
Bohemian Rhapsody is by no means a bad film; in bursts of energy, it’s actually very entertaining. The problem is that Singer and Fletcher deliver a final piece that feels too safe – too formulaic – to truly represent their subjects. This is a perfectly rhapsodic feature, just not a very bohemian one.