I think a deep dive into the character of Freddie Mercury and his bandmates in Queen could be an interesting topic for a film, but whatever good will the movie had is wasted on a completely uninspired approach that, despite a great central performance, deteriorates under the weight of its own anachronisms and an overall disinterest in actual history. Originally directed by Bryan Singer who was fired in the middle of shooting and quickly replaced by Dexter Fletcher who finished the film, it’s hard to know who to blame for this mess, but the end result is a weak outing that checks every formulaic biopic box and falters with every forced conversation that you know never happened in real life.
Rami Malek is the flamboyant and ferocious lead singer who befriends a couple of guys after a concert (which never happened) to join their band replacing their original lead singer. The film posits that these four unique individuals were responsible for the unique and enduring sound of Queen, well it tells you that, but doesn’t do a whole lot to show that. It mostly follows Mercury, choosing inexplicably to focus on his long-term relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), only lightly touching on his numerous homosexual relationships.
There’s a great story to be told – when did his bandmates know about his homosexuality and how did they feel about it? How did they feel about his on-stage persona and the attention he got as lead singer? What was it that kept them together and how did they each contribute to the band’s unique sound? How did Mercury’s family feel about his changing his name and his sexuality? None of that is addressed. There are some great moments, the first US tour is showcased in a nice sequence. An early fight between bandmates hints at more interesting subtext. Malek captures Mercury expertly, his on-stage performances going a step beyond just overt mimicry.
But there are so many scenes out of place or shoehorned in for plot reasons that a quick Wikipedia search highlights as false. Mercury didn’t know he was HIV+ before their famous Live Aid performance. The band never really split and got back together, they had been touring prior to Live Aid. They weren’t a last-minute addition to the bill, they had been announced as an artist with the first press release. “Fat Bottomed Girls” was released after “Bohemian Rhapsody” not before. “We Will Rock You” was released years before the time it was shown being recorded in the film. Paul Prenter wasn’t fired until after the Live Aid concert, so the reasons shown in the film were also fabricated. With no concern for actual reality, even the scenes that may have happened fall flat because of the whiff of generic filmmaking flows through every aspect of the story.
I’m mixed on the on-stage performances. I would’ve liked to have seen actual vocal recreations but it’s hard to believe that anyone could pull off both Freddie’s looks as well as actual vocal range. Malek acquits himself nicely enough lip syncing, I just wished it felt more immediate. Especially since the on-stage segments are the best Rhapsody has to offer, up to and including a fairly accurate recreation of their quintessential Live Aid set, a pivotal point in the history of the band.
As the final text scrolls over the film reading that “Bohemian Rhapsody” skyrocketed back to number one after Freddie Mercury’s death, it should’ve come with a big asterisk. True, in the UK the song did that. In America, “Rhapsody” never went to number one in the first place, only barely cracking the top 10, and when it returned in 1992 to peak at number two, it did so because it was featured in mega hit movie Wayne’s World, not necessarily because of Mercury’s death. It’s all semantics, since neither negates Mercury and Queen’s contribution to rock music and their legacy. It just highlights that the film only seems interested in telling a specific, feel-good narrative, rather than crafting a story out of the actual history of one of music’s more revered acts.
My Grade – A for Malek, but C- for the movie itself.