Review: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)


For more than half its runtime, Bohemian Rhapsody is barely a movie. It’s simply an assemblage of the origin moments of popular Queen songs, strung together through a bare-bones depiction of Freddie Mercury’s life as a rock star. It’s visually washed out, with overexposed lighting and hazy cinematography, edited beyond any sense of comprehension (you need only watch the clip that went viral around the Oscars to learn why the film’s Best Editing win is a joke), and devoid of any drama or compelling moments. 

Up until the midway point, all Bohemian Rhapsody has going for it is the music, which is good, certainly (it is Queen, after all), but simply having actors do karaoke versions of Queen’s greatest hits doesn’t make a movie. Even the celebrated lead performance by Rami Malek as Freddie isn’t good; he’s simply performing catty one-liners and strutting around on stage, all while playing around with hilariously fake teeth and not singing any of the songs (the actual singing on the soundtrack is Mercury’s real voice overlayed with a blend of Malek and Mercury-impersonator Marc Martel). 

After a scene depicting the writing of “Another One Bites the Dust,” the film course corrects to an extent. It stops being dreadful and settles for mediocre. The cinematography grows a bit more intimate. The editing stops being embarrassingly hyperactive. The concert scenes have some energy to their presentation and even though the finale recreating the Live Aid concert is little more than a lip-synched CGI recreation of one of the most famous concerts in history, at least the concert itself is stirring, so a recreation can’t help but have some magic to it.

The production of Bohemian Rhapsody was famously troubled, so perhaps that explains why it’s such a butchered film of competing visions. Once the current iteration of the film was greenlit, after Sacha Baron Cohen’s proposed version collapsed, the studio fast tracked the production and hired Bryan Singer to direct. He cast Rami Malek, but then proceeded to show up late and fight with Malek on set when he was there. Often he didn’t come at all. He claimed personal issues, but was eventually fired and the sexual assault allegations that came out in the wake of his firing offer a different understanding of why he went into hiding. Dexter Fletcher (who directed the infinitely-better Rocketman) came on to finish the film, but apparently three-quarters had already been filmed. I like to think that the disaster that is the first half of the film is excused by Singer’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the production, and the mediocre half was Fletcher righting the ship, but films are never filmed in sequence and it’s impossible to tell who shot what.

All that remains is the film as presented, which is two-faced, terrible, and yet terrifically popular. It won four Oscars, including Best Actor and Best Editing, was nominated for Best Picture, and grossed almost $1 billion worldwide. The fact that it’s borderline incoherent as a narrative and portrays the fascinating person of Freddie Mercury as a pompous ass didn’t get in the way of its success. Neither did its thematic hollowness, which almost entirely ignores Freddie’s sexuality and his fight with AIDS. Neither did the fact that it professes to celebrate the non-Freddie members of the band, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon (played by Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joe Mazzello), while paying them almost no narrative attention; one scene has Freddie admit that the band is more than him, but the film itself never seems to believe this.

The reason why Bohemian Rhapsody is so popular and so immune to its own shortcomings as a musical biopic is perplexing. Perhaps it’s no more complicated than Queen is very popular, and more specifically, popular with the sorts of casual music fans who are also casual movie fans—the sort of people who will see a movie because it’s popular and about something they’re interested in, but who won’t quibble about it lacking a theme or coherent editing or nuance, so long as they get to hear the music they like.

When I saw the first trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody play in theatres, I guaranteed to my wife that it’d be a massive hit. I was right that it would be a success, but, sadly, not any kind of artistic one. Freddie Mercury deserves better than this. Fans of Queen deserve better than this. Most importantly, casual movie fans deserve better than this. Popular movies rarely have this much contempt for their audience and for the legacy they purport to celebrate.

2 out of 10

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018, UK/USA)

Directed by Bryan Singer (and Dexter Fletcher); written by Anthony McCarten, based on a story by McCarten and Peter Morgan; starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers.