Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) is fine.
Let’s set the director controversy aside and focus on the product delivered to us by the hard work of hundreds of industry professionals.
The movie isn’t bad. Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury is spot-on… a performance on-par with Chadwick Boseman’s James Brown, but already more awarded. He has a Golden Globe and has a good chance of receiving an Oscar. And he deserves it.
The rest of the cast is great. Normally, actors are bad fake musicians. Real musicians can sniff them out. I can say, “as a guitar player,” that Gwilym Lee nailed the Brian May impersonation. He holds his guitar the right way, plays something close-enough to the actual music – it looks totally real. Those little details are what the movie gets right. The look of the film is smooth and polished (perhaps a bit too glossy), but the concert scenes capture Queen’s immortal intensity perfectly. I had to immediately pull up some Queen concert footage upon leaving the theater, after my viewing of Bohemian Rhapsody. They nailed it. Fine, accurate performances all-around.
But the movie just isn’t satisfying. It’s like when the picture on the toy box has all these cool graphics added to make the toy look really cool, but you open the box and it’s just this hollow, plastic thing. I never felt like I was learning anything about frontman Freddie Mercury’s legendary lifestyle, nor was I getting a good picture of who the man was. It feels like two full films and two biographies squeezed into one movie. We only briefly focus on many key aspects of his legacy, such as his homosexuality, his party lifestyle, drug problems, bandmate quarrels, songwriting process, lyrical and musical artistry, singing ability, and the devastating disease which claimed his life. Any one of those could have merited in itself at least an episode of a mini-series. The movie tries to cover too much. By the time Live Aid happens (in the last 20 minutes of the movie) I was amazed by how quickly the movie had flown by. It was too much of a breeze. Some parts should have been cut, others lengthened. The movie is like Bilbo Baggins on the night of his 111th birthday – “like butter scraped over too much bread.”
And the filmmakers, knowing the script’s deficiencies, were wise enough to play up the crowd-pleasing qualities they had before them. When the movie starts, and “Somebody to Love” kicks in over the opening credits, you can’t help but feel something, even if it’s a feeling the movie has done nothing to earn. That’s the big conundrum with soundtracks filled with popular songs – the audience carries all their baggage associated with those songs into the theater with them. To quote my friend David Jones, when we saw the trailer for the film: “How hard is it to cut a cool trailer with Queen music?”
And I know it’s unfair, to a certain extent, to criticize a Queen movie for doing exactly what it should’ve done – feed the audience the greatest hits, use the incredible discography at your fingertips to its full effect. I can’t ask them not to include Killer Queen, Keep Yourself Alive, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Love of My Life, and all the other great songs. And they are incorporated well. But maybe hearing those songs used in a movie boosts the audience’s reaction to it, and lowers the bar the filmmakers are required to reach. As long as the rest of the movie is “good enough,” the film would be a hit. And it is just that: good enough.
So, when all’s said and done, Bohemian Rhapsody will be a success. It is nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (and I think has a medium-rare chance of winning). But whatever the legacy of the film will be, it will have to be remembered as an achievement with a low degree of difficulty. Again, I would never wish to demean the hard work of a lot of people. But if the goal was make a cool movie about Freddie Mercury, using the discography of Queen as your soundtrack – then yes, job well done. But if the goal was to make a defining biopic about one of the most electric, sorely-missed figures in music history – then Bohemian Rhapsody falls short.