When a film debuts during awards season skips all three major festivals (Telluride, TIFF, Venice) it’s usually a bad sign.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” did just that, assuring skeptics they simply weren’t finished in time for the festival deadlines.
However, trouble off camera started for this production long before the final cut was yelled. “X-Men” director Bryan Singer was fired by the studio for multiple reasons, including being abusive to Malek and tardy on set. Jessica Chastain also helped point fingers Singer’s way (who was originally a producer on the upcoming “X-Men” film in which Chastain stars) bringing Hollywood’s abuse of power movement to the filmmakers fingertips. For audiences unaware of the scandal, oblivious to technical faults and simply present to enjoy a musical biopic featuring the music of Queen, none of this will matter to you. For anyone else with a sense of artistry, general expectations of authenticity and seeking something original, “Bohemian Rhapsody” will play out like a sloppy mess.
Spending much of his childhood in India, Farrokh Bulsara (Malek) came to Southwest England when he was 17. It didn’t take long for the ambitiously flamboyant songwriter to find his niche, taking over as lead singer for the rock band Smile.
They were signed quickly, thanks to Freddie Mercury, the name Farrokh gave himself, changed legally much to his conservative family’s disappointment. Smile became Queen, and Freddie along with his new band mates fought about songs, style and everything creative as they soared in popularity around the world.
“I’m exactly the person I was always meant to be,” Mercury says to himself. With fame and fortune comes drugs and other discoveries. Long-time girlfriend and fiancé Mary Austin (Boynton) knew Freddie’s true sexuality before he did, and they promised to remain best friends throughout it all.
It doesn’t take but a few minutes reading on Wikipedia to see how botched “Darkest Hour” screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s story on Freddie Mercury plays out.
The movie goes from brief introduction, first time on stage with the band (skipping any rehearsals, discussions, etc) and then zooms ahead one year later. There are more interesting things about Mercury on Wikipedia than contained in the whole of the film.
McCarten’s screenplay struggles with whether this is a film about Queen or Mercury and that plays out very unevenly. Malek’s dedicated and transformative performance is the only thing worth buying a ticket for. It’s clear his passion to bring the icon to life was the only authentic energy captured during this train wreck of a production. Which is why the few outlandish campy moments are some of the highlights, but the filmmakers don’t lean into the very thing that makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” stand apart from similar films.
Singer was replaced by director Dexter Fletcher (who is behind the upcoming Elton John biopic), who finished the film and oversaw post production. One director editing another directors original vision results is some of the year’s messiest editing. The costumes should have been a major talking point, but are hurriedly skipped over in montage sequences. In one scene, Malek dons a sequined leotard that really gives Natalie Portman a run for her money in “Vox Lux.” Poignant, emotional moments are lost. When we finally come back around to the parents, so little time is spent with them that what should have been a moment of heartfelt acceptance is just another rushed moment in the narrative. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is standard movie biopic fare — get famous, fall down, come back together — without any artistic elements to elevate it to higher ground. Similar to what Lady Gaga accomplishes in “A Star is Born”, Malek, still a relative newcomer to feature films, proves he can carry, or in his case, drag a movie across the finish line.
Final Thought: Malek singlehandedly holds this troubled film together as it falls apart around his dedicated and transformative performance.