We live in an era where the biopic has undergone an evolution. No longer is a garden variety look at a celebrity’s life acceptable as pure Oscar bait. More often, a nuanced take is the norm. Especially with awards season contenders, films will look in on someone’s life during a seminal moment or time period. Those biopics that avoid this new norm tend to fall short. Opening this week, Bohemian Rhapsody is another example of that. Rami Malek is terrific playing Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, that’s for sure, but the movie itself falls short of the intended mark. It simply has very little to say about its subject.
As you might imagine, the film is a look at the life of Freddie Mercury (Malek), who would go on to become one of the biggest rock and roll stars on the planet. The focus here is on everything in his life leading up to the famous Live Aid concert in 1985. Born Farrokh Bulsara, he always had his eye on becoming larger than life. We see as he teams up with Brian May (Gwilym Lee), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to form the legendary band. There’s also Freddie’s relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), his acknowledgment of being gay, a descent into bad behavior, and eventual redemption before his AIDS related death in 1991. For the most part, it’s a greatest hits type plot, only sporadically diving into who he was and why he pursued the life of excess he pursued. Bryan Singer (well, sort of, but more on that later) directs a script by the A-list tandem of Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan. Supporting players here include Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Aaron McCusker, and Mike Myers, among others. Newton Thomas Sigel handles the cinematography, while the score (as well as the editing) is done by John Ottman.
Malek is great here. The rest of the movie? Not so much. In addition to barely scratching the surface of who Mercury was, it also paints a somewhat disingenuous portrait. Others have written about it, but since the surviving Queen members had to give their approval to the project in order for the songs to be licensed, some sanitizing is done, especially in regards to those musicians. Now, it’s unlikely that it was meant to be anti Mercury in any way, but they all come off as far more responsible than he was. That’s not a huge issue to me, as biopics invariably massage the truth, but it’s all done in service of something so surface level. Malek does his best, and the songs are as great as you remember, but you can also just go listen to them independent of Bohemian Rhapsody. It never quite makes a compelling case for its own existence.
I’d be remiss not to mention the director controversy here. The film initially was helmed by Singer, though after reports of bad behavior and conflicts with Malek, he left the set. Whether he was fired, quit, or something in between, the filming was completed by Dexter Fletcher. We’ll never know just how much was directed by Fletcher, but this is not completely Singer’s work. You can’t tell where one ended and the other began, which is good, but it is only due to DGA rules that Singer is the only one credited. Fletcher is only listed as an Executive Producer, though being given next year’s Elton John biopic Rocketman to direct might be a partial reward.
If there’s Oscar prospects for Bohemian Rhapsody, they almost exclusively center on Malek’s performance. Best Actor is where this one should make a play. One could also look to Best Production Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. Realistically, it’s all about Actor and Malek. I’d be shocked if this got any Best Picture buzz. It’s just not on that level. Malek is though, so if Academy voters separate his performance from the flick itself, he stands a shot at a nomination. Time will tell, but Malek represents the best shot at Bohemian Rhapsody not being shut out.
This weekend, Queen fans will finally see Mercury get the biopic treatment when Bohemian Rhapsody opens. It’s a shame that the movie isn’t better, but at least Malek is very much on point. If all you want is to hear Queen songs and see Malek do his Mercury impression, this will suffice. If you want more, however, you’ll be disappointed. In the moment, I didn’t have a bad time with the flick. At the same time, it almost immediately faded from my memory. Queen die hards will take issue with what the film shows/leaves out, while those who don’t care probably won’t bother anyway. It’s a movie that just never fully shows you why it needed to be made in the first place…
Bohemian Rhapsody hits theaters this Friday!