Queen is absolutely incredible. They are extraordinary. Not just another good band, they are the band. They are all at once thrilling, beautiful, profound, and completely inexplicable. No musical artist in recent history could so deftly defy time like Queen, transcending the normally ironclad walls of taste and cultural gaps simply because of their sheer magnificence. Old or young, cool or nerdy, fat or thin, it doesn’t matter. Everybody knows them. Everyone at some point has heard the impossibly large range of Freddie Mercury flying and swooping like an orchestral trapeze artist through the tragedy of Bohemian Rhapsody, as people listen and below along with joy. They are real-life superheroes; a core part of our cultural identity. Purely, inarguably, magnificent.
That’s why it’s so frustrating that Queen is anything but that.
Granted lots of stuff is mediocre. The majority of movies and books and songs created any given year are superfluous space holders; not truly offensive, but nothing more than bargain bin clutter not worthy of more than a precursory glance. Still even beyond that much of the going on’s in our everyday life are nothing special; mindless trods through chores and commutes and work that are forgotten practically before they even happen. But Queen wasn’t mediocre and therefore a movie about them can’t be either because then it’s missing the entire point. A movie about Queen has to be able to capture that exceptional nature to the band. It can’t just be a line-by-line summary, because that neglects the wonder of Queen and Mercury that made the band so astounding to us.
But neglect this sense of wonder Bohemian Rhapsody does with a viewing experience that plays less like catching a glimpse inside the world of Queen and Mercury and more like scrolling through Queen’s Wikipedia page while watching old concert footage stuffed between the paragraphs. Spending the first half of the film tracking Queen’s rise to prominence and the latter half tracking Freddie’s downfall (while finding ways to shoe-horn their greatest hit songs in along the way), Bohemian Rhapsody is unable to find a tone, a message, or even a subject to focus on, resulting in a poorly paced and inexplicable trifle of a movie. And that’s because, beyond the admittedly fun performance scenes, Bohemian Rhapsody has no idea what it’s supposed to be. Is it a character study of Freddie’s genius, is it a celebration of his artistry, or is it just a fun bus-ride with the band? The scenes that work better are indeed the ones that focus more on Freddie, but the film instead chooses all and none of the above options and is rendered disjointed and crippled because of it.
Of course, many films — especially in the notoriously difficult bio-pic genre — have trouble finding a consistent tone and maybe trying to analyze Freddie Mercury and Queen’s popularity is a more difficult task than it would initially seem. But it is the complete lack of effort here that is so disturbing and, in the end, revealing. Because what is the point of a movie like this if it’s not even going to try and explain or comment on the nature of its subjects, especially one as culturally relevant as Queen and Mercury? The answer is so obvious I’m sure I probably don’t even need to state it, but here it is anyway: Bohemian Rhapsody was never interested in understanding the glory of its subjects because it cared only to capitalize off of it. And it worked! Blasting through box office records at supersonic speeds, the popularity of Queen shown brighter than the stench of its mediocre buzz. It’s cliched to call Bohemian Rhapsody a blatantly conceited cash grab, I know, but in truth, that’s really all this movie is. “Directed” by the notorious abuser and all around piece of work Bryan Singer –who was actually fired because he neglected to bother even showing up for work most days– there is no vision here. In fact, there’s barely a coherent movie at all.
Whatever its flaws, though, a tentpole project like Bohemian Rhapsody is not going to be completely irredeemable, and there are whiffs of something better buried in the clutter that at least makes for an occasionally entertaining few hours. The firey concert scenes live up to the hype, deliver jolts of pure electricity and transformative beauty. And once you get past the tiresome rock-movie cliches, there’s a somber reflective nature to a few of Freddie’s more personal scenes — even though Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t take them nearly far enough.
But it’s really only the ensemble that manages to bring a level of consistency to the film, as they somehow manage to respect the film’s subject matter and work hard despite the suffocatingly bland script (by professional bio-pic screenwriter Anthony McCarten). Rami Malek puts everything into his take on Mercury (which would have been a lock for an Oscar nod in a better movie). Even if his excessive performance appears reeked to me of over-acting and extreme simplicity at times, there’s at least effort given. And the cardboard cutouts of the rest of the band, provide at the very least a modest hint of comic contrast with Freddie. Even Mike Myers, who went missing a long time ago, shines through the delightfully arrogant growl of a record producer (forget Love Guru and give him a chance baby!).
As disappointing as Bohemian Rhapsody was all around though, it was the first movie I had seen in a theater since before classes started. It’s not that I haven’t seen movies (or new movies) during that time, but for whatever reason, I just haven’t been able to pull myself — and more importantly others– to walk the half mile to the theaters in downtown Berkeley. So getting the chance to succumb once again to the smell of popcorn and the flashing lights of the screen was a relief beyond words. And while the movie may have failed to capture the glory and complexities that made Queen so exceptional, getting to hit the town with friends and enjoy myself made it all worth it in the end. Listening to Bohemian Rhapsody back in our dorms — the real Bohemian Rhapsody — I was comforted in the knowledge that at least some of Queen’s fun-loving spirit had survived the night.