When did show-biz biopics turn into Broadway musicals — of the broadest, corniest kind? While Bohemian Rhapsody has a better subject than last year's The Greatest Showman — Queen front person Freddie Mercury — it doesn't offer much more subtlety.
Directed by Bryan Singer, the movie does excel as a showcase for Queen's biggest hits and the electrifying lead performance of Rami Malek. Its nostalgic evocation of those anthems clearly satisfies a lot of viewers who want the immersive, sing-along, stamp-along experience that Queen's live performances offered. Anyone seeking an absorbing or enlightening story, though, should look elsewhere.
The film follows the band from its inception through its biggest hits to its iconic 1985 Live Aid performance, exercising plenty of dramatic license along the way. Yet it offers next to no insight into the forces that shaped Mercury's mesmerizing stage presence or his creative experiments. Early scenes with his conservative Indian Parsi family serve to establish him as a tradition-flouting rebel, yet his rebellion appears to be sui generis, as if he'd sprung from the womb equipped with lace cuffs and impeccable provocative poise.
Malek is consistently fun to watch. But when the movie puts Mercury on a predictable downward spiral, it's tough to empathize with this wafer-thin conception of him, and even tougher not to notice all the ways in which the movie works to downplay and domesticate his sexuality.
More involving are the scenes of Mercury's creative collaboration with band members Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), especially their recording of the title song. Here, too, though, Anthony McCarten's script trades way too much on fond hindsight, nudging and winking at the audience.
"Does it have potential?" Mercury coyly asks his girlfriend (Lucy Boynton) after playing her a piano interlude we all instantly recognize. Later, record exec Ray Foster (Mike Myers) repeatedly insists that kids will never bang their heads to "Bohemian Rhapsody." We get it — but should we really feel so superior for knowing the song is a stone-cold classic? Maybe the more interesting question is how something so bizarre defied the naysayers and conquered the airwaves.
The movie offers no enlightenment on that score, either. It asks us to cheer for the foreordained triumph of Mercury's outrageousness and, later, to shake our heads as he slips into a too outrageous lifestyle, leaving his more conservative bandmates behind. When a prospective partner tut-tuts him and tells him to "Come back [to me] when you like yourself," the movie feels as preachy as any old Hollywood cautionary tale about the price of fame. The pairing of potent music and performances with this kind of patronizing boilerplate is, at times, painful to experience.
Bohemian Rhapsody redeems itself late in the game, and sends the audience out on a high note, by re-creating almost the entirety of Queen's Live Aid set. Regardless of the glaring factual inaccuracies involved in its dramatic framing (already chronicled by plenty of critics), this set piece is a rousing tribute to a born performer. No one is likely to leave the theater without "We Are the Champions" in their head.
The problem is, when biopics are Broadway-ized, every story becomes the same. In one of the film's better scenes, Mercury explains Queen's appeal: "We're four misfits who don't belong together, playing for the other misfits." The movie never explains what turned these particular misfits into champions. As a result, it too often feels like a smug rhapsody on success.