There’s a sequence about 45 minutes into “Bohemian Rhapsody” in which the initial 1975 reviews of the film’s titular song roll across the screen. These reviews showcase mostly middling reactions to the tune, with comments akin to “impossibly disjointed,” “adds up to less than the sum of its parts,” and most emphatically, “perfectly adequate.”
These are all ironically apt descriptions of the film itself, which showcases the roller coastery journey of English rock band Queen from 1970 to 1985. Yet, despite its flaws as a production, “Rhapsody” is ceaselessly entertaining, which is mostly a testament to the catalog of music the film showcases, as well as an assortment of solid acting performances (and one truly great one.)
“Rhapsody” opens in 1970, when passionate dreamer Farrokh Bulsara (who would later don the moniker, Freddie Mercury) meets the struggling members of a band called Smile and forms a new band titled Queen. The band quickly rise in the charts as their talents are combined to produce dozens of hit songs.
As the years pass, and Freddie emerges as the clear star of the group, angst amongst the outfit ensues. Drug abuse, promiscuity, solo deals, and general battles of ego run rampant (until the inevitable third act wrap-up, in which the four members of the band make peace to come together and knock out their biggest live performance ever.)
If this all sounds a bit formulaic and conventional for a film of this genre, that’s because it is. “Rhapsody” is hung upon the framework of an extremely safe and predictable script — many may call it “paint-by-numbers.”
Considering the ingenuity of the band it portrays, an effort so basic borders on felonious. The film makes clear on multiple occasions that what Queen were doing as musicians was ground-breaking and controversial, even in the face of threats from industry seniors that they were doomed to fail and never be remembered — how ironic then that this film would be structured so contrarily to that progressive spirit.
Also, it seems worth noting that many of the film’s events feel slightly contrived for the sake of tidy storytelling. I’m not a huge Queen fan (I casually enjoy their hits as much as the next man), but even I knew that certain events depicted in the film were told slightly out-of-order, and even events that seemed chronologically accurate still possessed an air of convolution, which raised suspicion when they should’ve raised spirits.
It’s not a good sign when you’re watching a biopic and every 10-15 minutes, you find yourself thinking, “I find it hard to believe it happened quite like that.” After enough instances, it comes off as intentionally dishonest storytelling, which defuses some of the magic, and frankly, goes against the raw purity of the band’s legacy.
The film’s direction and cinematography share similar sentiments — glossy and uninspired, with few big risks taken visually, and a general lack of effort to stretch in finding new ways to deliver old tropes.
Truly, “Rhapsody’s” biggest crime as a production is that it feels like a gigantic, big-budget piece of fan fiction. The film’s events feel like they’re playing out in a way the filmmakers wished they’d gone down, and it’s disappointing having to contend with that as a viewer, considering the movie’s positive attributes.
This brings us to what works so well in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and ultimately makes the film entirely worth seeing on the big screen — its handling of the music is perfect.
Every scene featuring the band’s music — whether it be a stadium concert, an experimental jam session, the recording of an album, or the climactic 1985 Live Aid Performance — works tremendously. Aside from the film’s title track, no Queen song is featured more than once in the film, which only attests to the eclectic, far-reaching achievement of their work.
It’s so wonderful to find yourself thinking, “Oh, yeah, this song!” or “Of course, they haven’t featured this song yet!” scene after scene after scene, even into the end credits.
Each song is featured in the film not only with powerful reverance, but also calculated purpose. Despite the script’s other suspect issues, it does feel like this team thought a lot about the placement of each track, and where and when might mean the most for viewers to hear which song.
“Rhapsody” also excels in the casting of actors that not only look like the people they’re portraying, but succeed in capturing their passions, and this is no truer than in the performance of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.
It takes no longer than 10 minutes for the viewer to completely forget that Malek is onscreen and accept this man as Mercury himself. Malek’s capturing of Mercury’s on-stage bravado is chilling at times, particularly in wide shots where Mercury’s body and voice command entire arenas of spectators. This film probably isn’t going to be up for many of the bigger Academy Awards, but a Best Actor nomination for Malek seems like a shoo-in, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he emerged as the front-runner.
In the end, though, (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), “Bohemian Rhapsody” is too short. It’s 135-minute runtime easily could’ve pushed closer to three hours, considering all the dramatic beats its story was forced to include.
There are many topical subplots throughout the film, touching on things like Mercury’s sexuality and penchant for hard-living, interpersonal drama between members of the band and its staff, complicated dynamics between Queen and the press, and even Mercury’s eventual AIDS diagnosis. An extra 30 minutes might’ve given all these subplots their just weight and made them all feel truly worth their inclusion in the film. As it stands, “Rhapsody” feels slightly abbreviated, as though 20th Century Fox demanded grabbing just one more screening per day at the expense of graceful narrative flow.
Overall, however, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is still worth the price of admission. To put it simply, bands like Queen do not exist anymore at a mainstream level, and the achievement of re-capturing these artists at the top of their game before tens of thousands of spectators cannot be understated. In the moments when “Rhapsody” works, and there are many, it’s dynamite with a laser beam, and guaranteed to blow your mind.