The problem with portraying a larger than life figure is, of course, that one's portrayal must also be larger than life. Rami Malek is good as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, in fact it can be said he is easily the best thing about the otherwise paint-by-numbers, strangely formulaic motion picture about a band that self-professed "We don't follow formulas."
While there's an argument that such a statement is true, it's definitely not true of director Bryan Singer's 134-minute slicker than snot yet soulless film that likely hits enough right notes to please the masses but is destined to disappoint a good majority of cineastes and true Queen and Freddie Mercury devotees.
If I were to describe Bohemian Rhapsody in an easy, accessible phrase it would be "cover band." The film never really strikes an original note, choosing instead to tap into all the biopic high notes including bookend scenes that do, indeed, pretty magnificently bring to life Queen's remarkable Live Aid performance.
It's just a pity that virtually no other aspect of the film ever becomes that remarkable.
By now, it's fairly well known that Rami Malek jumped into the film after Sacha Baron Cohen's departure, while Singer's departure shortly before filming finished led to Dexter Fletcher being brought in to wrap things up. While Fletcher may have left a note or two on the big screen, rest assured that Bohemian Rhapsody is a Bryan Singer film.
The initial presentation of Malek's Mercury is a jarring one, his protruding overbite far more dominant than it ever seemed with Mercury and his accent, indicate of Mercury's Zanzibari roots, stretches and twists its way like a mouthwash overdose. While this sounds like a dreadful insult, it's not and one becomes accustomed to the interpretation that mellows throughout the course of the film and right into Malek truly hitting his stride as Mercury arrives in the 70's and the image that most of us have of Mercury is brought to the forefront.
While Malek's performance never quite feels authentic, it's a remarkable impersonation and, quite impressively, never crosses the line into the caricature it could have easily been.
Bohemian Rhapsody is at its most satisfying in its performance sequences, sequences that are fortunately frequently present throughout the film's too long yet not long enough running time. The film is less satisfying when exploring, or mostly sugarcoating, Mercury and the band's more human elements. Mercury's complex relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) is the closest the film gets to genuine humanity, their slow dance toward an inevitably failed intimacy played out with an honesty a good portion of the rest of the film lacks. While the rest of Mercury's bandmates do eventually become fully formed characters, Bohemian Rhapsody wraps itself around Mercury and never really lets go. Brian May and Roger Taylor co-produced the film, perhaps explaining why the film never quite delves more deeply than the long celebrated public images.
Bohemian Rhapsody didn't, of course, have any actual "need" to be a more complex, emotionally driven film. Singer was under no obligation to delve deeper or to more fully explore Mercury's hedonistic ways, mostly closeted sexuality, or the vast chasm that could be his on and off-stage personas. The biggest problem, however, with Bohemian Rhapsody is that it constantly feels like it is going to do these things only to pull back and play it safe time and again.
Bohemian Rhapsody isn't a bad film. It's entertaining, especially during its musical sequences and its absolutely dynamite Live Aid recreation, but it's a film that manages to feel incomplete even at over two hours in length. It's a strangely bland, formulaic motion picture for one of contemporary music's most dynamic and compelling lead singers.
Instead of, say, "Another One Bites the Dust," Bohemian Rhapsody is more like "Another One Rides the Bus."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic