Film Review: Bohemian Rhapsody (USA, 2018) is as spirited as it is sterilized

Biopics are a dime-a-dozen these days. And when one considers the marketable possibilities about them, it’s not hard to see why there are so many of them. Particularly when the subject of the biopic revolves around the entertainment industry. In the case of the music industry, we have had so many biopics revolving around that subject matter, that have had great parodic examples in the process. We have had critically acclaimed films ranging from This Is Spinal Tap, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping to parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

And after many, many years of development, going through numerous lead actors and film directors including actors Sasha Baron Cohen, Ben Whishaw and directors David Fincher and Tom Hooper, we finally have a biopic about the British rock band Queen. Or more specifically, about the lead vocalist, Freddie Mercury. With talents like director Brian Singer, co-screenwriter Peter Morgan, lead actor Rami Malek and the two remaining Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor in the fray, will the film Bohemian Rhapsody succeed like a champion or will it bite the dust?

The biopic follows the swift rise of the band through their iconic songs and revolutionary sound. They reach high level, unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie, surrounded by darker influences and inner turmoils, shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career.

Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with his bandmates just in time for Live Aid. While bravely facing a recent AIDS diagnosis, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music.

Apart from the numerous changes in the cast and crew, there have been behind-the-scenes stories about conflicts between director Bryan Singer and the cast and crew to the point that he was fired and replaced with second-choice film director Dexter Fletcher; required to film a few weeks of principal photography.

How this effected the final outcome of the film remains to be seen, but deep down, it does not matter how eventful the stories of the filmmaking process came about, what matters is what is on screen. And what we have on screen is a biopic that is so sterilized, sanitized and purified that the story that purports to be true or contain the essence of the spirit of the subject matter comes off as annoyingly hagiographical. Some of the rose-tinted effects are to be expected since Brian May and Roger Taylor are involved in the production process, but unfortunately, the balance between honesty and commemoration is way off.

Story points in the film play out as if Singer and screenwriters Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan are ticking off a checklist of biopic cliches. Band getting together? Check. Love interest? Check. Band on the rise? Check. Drugs and bad choices? Check. Band and love interest break up? Check. Public outburst? Check. Band get back together? Check. And it goes on and on. When scenes play out in a similar fashion to a parody of musical biopics like the aforementioned Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, that’s definitely not a good sign.

And the characters are underwritten to the point that they come off more like plot and thematic devices rather than real people with personalities, which does not help the actors, giving them very little to chew on. In the case of Allen Leech‘s character, Paul Prenter is an example that could have been great for dramatic potential, as he is meant to be a manipulator of Freddie Mercury as well as a lover of his, but thanks to the anemic script, Prenter’s actions just come off as laughable and unconvincing.

Even the motivations for the music itself lacks any conviction as to how it gets created and how it became as influential as it is. With lines of dialogue like “doing things out of the norm” or “outside the box” or “not following the set trends”, it comes off as blatantly didactic and yet somehow frustratingly vague. Good musical biopics (like Walk The Line and Amadeus) are ones that invite those who are new or had no interest in the particular music and yet, they lend a true understanding as to why the subject matter was so into creating their music in the first place, and Bohemian Rhapsody fails to convey that understanding.

Speaking of blatantly didactic, there are many unintentionally hilarious moments in the film that signal to the audience as if they are visually-impaired or crash-land towards cliche. Examples include a scene where Mercury is showing signs of attraction towards men, and it happens when he sees a man walking into the toilet stalls, with a closing door that has the word “Men” in huge block letters; or another scene towards the end where phones are off the hook in preparation for calls of Live Aid.

And there is one incredibly cringeworthy moment involving Mike Myers (whose role consists of him sitting on a desk that if he were to move two feet away from it, his makeup would fall off) making a cheesy reference to his beloved Wayne’s World.

The film’s shortcomings are such a shame because the music of Queen is still fantastic in of itself, being it is the solid foundation that the film revolves around (particularly during the Live Aid concert climax); and there is of course Malek’s performance as Freddie. While the motivations of the character play out exactly the way one would expect, the Mr Robot actor still manages to play Freddy with heart, nuance that he (along with Lucy Boynton‘s understated performance as Mary Austin and their shared chemistry) and the songs are what prevents Bohemian Rhapsody from being a bad film.

Unfortunately, the film plays out more like Bohemian Parody. The film is formulaic to a tectonic fault and the storytelling is incredibly sterile and clinical to the point that there’s no risk of biting any dust, but Bohemian Rhapsody just inches by with Malek’s Mercurial performance, true bouts of sheer energy and one hell of an ending. Just don’t expect any depth, nuance or have an impression of learning more about the band, especially not Freddie Mercury.


Bohemian Rhapsody is out now.

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.