In all of our lives, there are things which sum up everything about us. Whether it be a poem, a picture, a book, a film, or a song, these things become emblematic of who we are at our core. These are the things that fill up our souls, increasing great joy and tempering terrible sorrows. Recognizing that the hallowed music of rock n’roll band Queen represents many of these moments to millions of people around the world, it makes sense that eventually a biopic would come to be, attempting to sum up the lives of the members – Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor, Brian May, and John Deacon – and the music they created. Ideally, this would be done in a manner befitting the reverence the music and the lead singer, the incredibly unique Mercury, inspired in fans. However, the story is ill-served by the Bryan Singer-directed Bohemian Rhapsody, an experience more focused on fan-service than an honest exploration of the band’s history. This would be bad enough, except the script by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan piles on by manipulating the events of history to fit the narrative dramatically. The fans deserve better. Queen deserves better. Freddie deserves better.
Using Live Aid as the bookends of Rhapsody, the film focuses on Freddie (Rami Malek) beginning in 1970 London as he joins drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and lead guitarist Brian May’s (Gwilym Lee) band, Smile, before recruiting bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and changing their name to Queen. With girlfriend Mary Austin (Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton) supporting him, Freddie and the boys record their first album Queen before eventually being signed by EMI and recording the infamous 1975 album A Night at the Opera, which featured future hits “You’re My Best Friend,” “Love of My Life,” and the titular “Bohemian Rhapsody.” As their success increases, so does Freddie’s indulgence in both physical and pharmaceutical excess until a rift is formed and the band breaks apart. It’s not until a crisis emerges that Freddie realizes what he’s lost and, as luck would have it, the opportunity to re-unite for a world event in the form of charity concert Live Aid offers the chance to get it all back.
As a premise, it doesn’t get more dramatic than that. A legendary band’s beginning, their struggles with success, their falling out, and then the resurrection. Rhapsody is truly a rollercoaster ride of emotion, except it’s based around a timeline bent to the will of the writers. Given that a 2-hour-plus film needs to cram in the lives of four prestigious individuals is a difficult task, some adjustments for the sake of keeping things moving is expected. It becomes a problem when facts are either omitted or reappropriated. For example, it makes sense for the sake of the story that Rhapsody would want to jump as quickly as it can to the creation of the titular song, except it’s done by suggesting the record label wants them to record a new album after their debut, which completely ignores two albums: Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack. Considering these albums included tracks like “Season Seas of Rye,” “Killer Queen,” and “Brighton Rock,” it seems strange to erase them. Much later, in a particularly tense scene between Freddie and manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), “Under Pressure” underscores the moment. It’s a particularly powerful song, yet it feels misplaced as the song was recorded in 1982 but the events of the scene are in 1985 and the scene has nothing to do with that album, David Bowie, or anything else relative to the formation of the song. The most egregious violation occurs in the moment when Freddie learns, in 1985, that he’s contracted AIDS but reports indicate that this event happened in 1986, more than a year after it happens in the film. The song “Who Wants To Live Forever” plays in an attempt to enhance the emotionality of the moment, again in 1985, even though the song is from the 1986 album A Kind of Magic. The real story of Queen, especially as it connects to Freddie, is one of real trauma and pain, yet it’s hard to see that when so much of their history is manipulated for the sake of storytelling.
This kind of rampant manipulation continues on, past the narrative, in ways large and small. John Deacon, a significant member of the band is reduced to a punchline between the members. References to other popular songs like “Fat Bottom Girls” are made via costumes that extras wear in the background. Mike Meyers appears as EMI rep Ray Foster who, upon hearing the entirety of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” actually delivers a line stating that twenty years from that moment, no one will be head banging to it (a groan-inducing line which references Meyers’s own use of the song in his film Wayne’s World, nearly 20 years later).
The singular highlight of the film comes in the casting. Top-down, each actor is superb in their performances. Malek disappears into Freddie, capturing not just the physicality, or the electricity that always seemed to emanate from him whether performing or not, but also the quiet introspection, the shyness that made him sensitive as an artist. Hardy, Lee, and Mazzello aren’t given as much screen time nor focus as Malek, but these three easily convey the delight and anguish that bandmates frequently offer each other in good times and bad. Boynton as Mary, an individual of great significance in real life, is given just a bit more than the bandmates as her story reflects off of Freddie’s and she matches Malek beat-for-beat beautifully. Even the supporting performances from Tom Hollander, Aidan Gillen, and Aaron McCusker, are fantastic, with the story really pumping whenever they are involved. In another version of this tale, perhaps more time would’ve been given to dig into each of them. Strangely, of all the characters, Leech’s Prenter feels the most fleshed out of any of them. Perhaps if there’d been more of a focus on the characters instead of the story, Rhapsody might feel more balanced.
Given how beloved Queen’s music is around the world and how large Freddie Mercury’s legacy has become, any biopic about the band would never live up the expectations set. It’s an extraordinarily heavy lift to be sure. Considering the band’s involvement in production, it’s an incredible shame that Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t honor their work the way it should. Does it pay respect to Freddie and the band? Of course it does. It showcases them as the Rock Gods they’ve become in the minds of their fans. The sequence of them playing at Live Aid, a near-perfect recreation of their iconic set, cements that if nothing else does. But it’s not real. It’s not honest. It lacks the magic to live forever. Taken on its face, Bohemian Rhapsody is a fun time for general audiences who learn virtually nothing about the band beyond what’s commonly known. Longtime fans, however, may find the continuous inconsistencies and fan-service both jarring and unforgivable.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.