“Bohemian Rhapsody,” the $52 million Wikipedia entry that covers the rise and fall and rise of Freddie Mercury-era Queen, is a messy, generic, sanitized and occasionally thrilling rock biopic that, if nothing else, features a soundtrack wall-to-wall with the greatest hits of one of the best bands of the 20th century.
It’s not a good movie, but it is often a watchable one, thanks to Rami Malek’s entertaining embodiment of Mercury and a handful of exciting concert recreations. When the movie sticks to the music (the creative push and pull of the studio sessions, the arena concerts), “Bohemian Rhapsody” soars. When it focuses on anything else, it becomes a chore — the same old set list of celebrity biopic cliches.
The film’s best stretch is the first 30 or 40 minutes, which show a shy British Parsi man named Farrokh Bulsara (Malek) as he becomes the frontman of a band called Smile. His bandmates include guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello).
With the creative hurricane that is Bulsara (soon to be Freddie Mercury) as the band’s new driving force, Smile becomes Queen, and Queen becomes an ambitiously experimental fusion of genres (including opera!). Soon they’re making hit records; then they’re filling stadiums.
The film hits its crescendo with the recording of “A Night at the Opera,” Queen’s fourth studio album, featuring the singles “You’re My Best Friend” and the six-minute masterpiece from which the movie takes its title. (The long single proves particularly jarring for an EMI exec played in cameo by Mike Myers, who, you might recall, headbanged to “Bohemian Rhapsody” 26 years ago in “Wayne’s World.”)
The album launches Queen to international fame. And then the problems begin.
When the band’s not recording or performing or fighting, the film focuses exclusively on Freddie. And mostly in a superficial way. “Bohemian Rhapsody” only gives cursory glances at Mercury’s family life, his sexual awakening and his eventual battle with AIDS, which would kill him in 1991.
Besides the band, the most prominent people in Freddie’s life are his girlfriend, Mary (Lucy Boynton), and his scheming personal manager, Paul (Allen Leech).
As Freddie pushes Mary away, Paul drives a rift between Freddie and the band. The rise is over, the fall begins and the movie gets boring for a little while.
Freddie becomes imperious: “Queen is whatever I say it is!” and “I won’t compromise my vision any longer.”
As Freddie flails, the film devolves into a montage of blurry debauchery (within the bounds of the PG-13 rating).
Queen fans know the story: Rock bottom. Redemption. Then one of the most triumphant live performances in rock history.
The joys of Queen’s music can’t help but prove infectious for much of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And there are worse things to do in a movie theater than listen to Queen songs for two hours.
But even the high points (like Malek’s performance) can’t make up for how uneven and disconnected the movie is.
Some of this surely came from the troubled production itself. When the film’s director — “X-Men” helmer and alleged sex offender Bryan Singer — stopped showing up to set with a lot of the movie yet to be shot, the studio fired him and replaced him with Dexter Fletcher.
I’m not sure if this mid-production switcheroo or Singer’s reportedly erratic on-set behavior accounts fully for why the film is such a wandering muddle. It might also have to do with Roger Taylor, Brian May and John Deacon’s involvement in the movie. Or the fact that the producers and key principals — including Sacha Baron Cohen, who was previously set to play Mercury before departing the project — couldn’t ever seem to agree on what direction they wanted to take for the movie.
There were major creative differences from the get-go.
This is fitting, in a way, as one of the things that made Queen such a wonderful band was how they channeled their creative differences into such a singular, unified whole. Freddie was the band’s supernova, of course, but each of Queen’s members made major songwriting contributions to the band’s catalog.
“We’re four misfits who don’t belong together,” Freddie says at one point in the film.
They pushed and they pulled and they fought like mad and, in the process, they made masterpieces.
Alas, not all creative contention leads to such great things.