Barely mediocre Bohemian Rhapsody undersells the legend of Freddie Mercury | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Barely mediocre Bohemian Rhapsody undersells the legend of Freddie Mercury

The movie can't decide whether it's a Freddie Mercury biopic or a Queen biopic, and is instead neither, falling closer to a long tribute with light backstory.

click to enlarge Barely mediocre Bohemian Rhapsody undersells the legend of Freddie Mercury
Photo: 20th Century Fox Film
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody
The movie Bohemian Rhapsody is a ridiculous, impossible journey that almost never was, just like the song "Bohemian Rhapsody," just like the band Queen itself. But unlike the band and the song, which found the exact right formula of heart and insanity to make something magic, the movie fails to synthesize the band and Freddie Mercury's life.

Original plans for the movie began in 2010 with Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury before he walked away due to vague creative differences, then another Mercury was cast and walked away, before the film finally settled on Rami Malek (it only took three tries to find someone who, like Mercury, was not white).

Two thirds of the way through filming Bohemian Rhapsody, director Bryan Singer stopped showing up to set. There were rumors of clashing with the cast and crew and Singer was eventually fired. He claimed he was tending to a sick relative, but coincidentally, this happened at the same time he was being sued for assaulting a minor (not the first time). Dexter Fletcher joined to direct the final third of the movie, but still the project is credited to Singer.

Bohemian Rhapsody follows the history of Queen and Freddie Mercury, culminating in the band's performance at Live Aid in 1985. One of the movie's biggest flaws is that it can't decide whether it's a Freddie Mercury biopic or a Queen biopic, and is instead neither, falling closer to an extended tribute with a light backstory.

Before he was Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, he was Farrokh Bulsara, airport employee. One night, after watching a local band perform, he saunters over and asks if he can join. From there, it's a quick journey to becoming Queen, and the triumph of the first singles and global success. In between, there are snippets of Mercury's personal life — his relationship with fiancée/best friend Mary Austin, his scattered romances with men, his loneliness disguised with intoxication and lavish parties.

There is not enough background on Mercury's life for it to be a comprehensive biopic, but there's also not a deep enough understanding of the band to be about them either. There are glimpses into Mercury's family life and childhood, how he was born on an island off of Tanzania to Indian Parsi parents before immigrating to England. He changed his first name to fit in, and his last name to be a rockstar. The movie only skims the surface of his relationship with his culture and identity.

In one of the first recording sessions for the band, one of the members says, seemingly out of nowhere, "we have to get experimental," leading them to play their instruments in zany ways. This, with Mercury's flamboyant charm, is supposed to explain how the band found its unique sound, but offers little to no explanation as to how Queen really came to be. It's difficult to explain the implausibility of Queen and Freddie Mercury, who managed to be big and over-the-top, but still full of heart and generosity. It's a feat that "Bohemian Rhapsody," in all its nonsense, achieves as a song. It's inimitable that a song with as obvious a premise as "We are the Champions" is inspiring, and not corny. Against all odds, the band worked. And against all odds, Bohemian Rhapsody got made, but failed to capture the passionate absurdity of its subject.

Instead of offering real insight or explanation into the band's inner workings, the movie rolls through the greatest hits, explaining how each one came to be in the simplest way possible. In the middle of a band fight, bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) starts playing the riff that becomes "Another One Bites the Dust." Guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) starts a clapping rhythm and it becomes "We Will Rock You."

The band was heavily involved in the movie's production, and in doing so rinsed themselves of any blame for the band's failings. It's always Freddie's antics and demands and lateness that hinder success, which could be true, but there are four members in the band and none of them seem to function as anything other than doofy sidekicks.

And while Bohemian Rhapsody doesn't exactly skim over Mercury's sexuality or the complications from AIDS that eventually killed him, it does skim over the details, giving it all an after-school-special feeling. There isn't much insight into how Mercury handled his illness, and the reactions are instead filtered through the point of view of his bandmates, who seem very understanding and non-judgmental of the whole thing. Then again, the movie had heavy input from said bandmates.

What makes Bohemian Rhapsody seem the most like a self-mythologizing tribute is the way they incorporated Mercury's real singing voice. There is no pretending that anyone could ever match Mercury's vocal talents, which were so unique they prompted scientific studies. Instead, Malek passionately lip-syncs to the real thing, which almost works, but ultimately doesn't. It asks the question of whether or not watching this movie is any better or worse than watching a good tribute band.

The movie culminates with that legendary Live Aid performance. They don't recreate it in full, but come close. The movie-Queen play four or five songs, including "Radio Ga Ga," the most iconic song of the event. The recreation feels nearly like a dream, with a CGI rendering of the 72,000 person crowd at Wembley Stadium, close-up shots of Malek's dancing and (faux) singing, and the wild enthusiasm of the crowd. It's an impressive moment when Malek does a call and response, demonstrating his intoxicating power over the crowd. But that can't be attributed to Malek, or the CGI, or Bryan Singer, or even the other band members. That's all Freddie.

Bohemian Rhapsody opens everywhere Fri., Nov. 2.