As a genre, the cinematic biopic is as ubiquitous as it is limiting. A typical staple of the genre will dutifully trot out the most significant events and relationships of a singular subject’s life in an episodic sequence of highs and lows in order to form a sustained, mostly chronological narrative. But a human life worthy of such treatment is usually too abundant and complex to be rendered on screen so systematically, and as such the end result is usually a simplification rather than a deepening of the life being explored—a highlight reel in place of what could have been an attempt at reckoning with the interior, private, and complicated life of a notable public figure.
Bohemian Rhapsody is no exception to this trend, as it’s yet another reductive cinematic portrayal of a legendary pop-cultural figure. The film is a flashy yet ultimately shallow overview of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek) life from his days working as a luggage handler at Heathrow Airport, while living at home in London with his conservative immigrant Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti and Meneka Das), to famously stealing the show on stage at Live Aid, a massive concert organized as a fundraiser for famine relief in Africa in 1985. And while the film’s conclusion is an impressively intricate and deeply moving recreation of the band’s iconic performance at Live Aid—a worthy homage to one of the greatest rock n’ roll performers of all time—the scenes leading up to the show are ultimately plagued by a leaden sense of each narrative and artistic choice being the safest one available.
Queen’s meteoric rise to prominence is cross-cut throughout the film with the development of Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who goes from being his would-be bride to his close friend following the revelation of his homosexuality. And the film is at its most engaging when capturing how Mercury and his bandmates—Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello)—conceived some of their biggest hits in the studio. The playing out of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each of Queen’s members in relation to one another provides both narrative tension and a fascinating portrayal of artistic collaboration, however speculative it may be, especially in the depiction of how “Bohemian Rhapsody” came into being. Throughout, the band remains lovingly central rather than conveniently ancillary to the portrait of Mercury’s life and work.
Mercury’s descent into a life of drugs, booze, and sexual excess is later depicted as the catalyst of Queen’s potential demise in the years prior to the Live Aid performance. The film seems almost embarrassed to include on-screen evidence of Mercury’s sexuality, as if eager to subtextually corroborate the stereotype of tragic queerness leading to tragic promiscuity leading to an inevitably tragic death. Suggestions of his homosexual desire are shoe-horned into a single wistful glance at a rugged truck driver slinking into a public restroom and lavish representations of drug-fueled parties that are otherwise meant to demonstrate just how deeply into depravity Mercury sank before his inevitable redemption. The news of his AIDS diagnosis is practically the only indication the audience gets that Mercury even had a sex life at all.
And while Bohemian Rhapsody does succeed in mapping out the most important touchstones of Mercury’s all-too-short life, in much the same way as a Wikipedia entry organizes information functionally rather than artfully, it does so at the expense of many opportunities for depth of feeling. The minor characters are drawn two-dimensionally at best and are rushed through paint-by-numbers scenes simply to provide a sense of forward momentum rather than to add any particular nuance or inflection to the core narrative.
As the eventually insidious Paul Prenter—Mercury’s personal manager during much of his career, who later sold incriminating personal information about the singer to the press—Allen Leech gamely waxes between sweet and sexy and sly as the script dictates, his rage about the limitations of queer existence almost moving in the single scene in which he’s actually given space to perform, rather than to react. And Mike Myers lends an amusing cameo as a fictional record executive who’s not quite sold on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a clever nod to his character’s obsession with the song in Wayne’s World.
But the actors who play these needlessly tertiary roles serve mostly as props to buttress Malek’s comparatively impeccable star turn as Mercury himself. The performance is sometimes perhaps more of an impersonation than a deep dive into Mercury’s soul, relying as it does on capturing the essence of someone already so familiar to so many, but what an impersonation it is. From emulating Mercury’s outsized affect to his commanding stage presence and singular charm, it’s clear that Malek has fully immersed himself in his subject’s personal brand of performativity, and the result of the careful approximation of both Mercury’s physicality and playful demeanor is that of bringing the legend—however fleetingly—back to life. But this charitable act of resuscitation for the benefit of Mercury’s admirers is something that the film as a whole ultimately fails to accomplish, as Bohemian Rhapsody mistakenly believes that simply trudging through a workmanlike overview of the Queen frontman’s life will allow it to arrive at something approaching intimacy.