The thunderous first moments of Bohemian Rhapsody don’t just put you in the shoes of its hero. They stick you in his shades and ‘stache, his painter’s-white jeans and tank top, the camera trailing behind him backstage as he leaps and struts, psyching himself to perform for the largest audience in human history. It’s 1985, and Freddie Mercury and Queen are about to play Live Aid. The crowd’s roar swells as Mercury, at the climax of a rousing tracking shot, surges up a staircase and onto the stage. Then, at the peak of the excitement, the last title card of the opening credits hits: “Directed by Bryan Singer.”
That may pierce the high. Singer (The Usual Suspects, many X-Men films) abandoned the set of Bohemian Rhapsody last December, as he faced a lawsuit accusing him of sexually assaulting a 17 year-old boy in 2003. The studio, 20th Century Fox, fired Singer and replaced him with actor-director Dexter Fletcher (Sunshine on Leith), who completed the film but did not shoot enough of it to secure credit. Beyond the revulsion that seeing Singer’s name might stir, the film, an accidental collaboration, often builds to mood-killing jolts like that. As it skims the surface of Mercury and Queen’s lives and careers, the swift yet lengthy Bohemian Rhapsody often verges on becoming something as thrilling as Queen itself — and then crashes back into the off-putting, the ill-considered or the ridiculous.
Is it Singer or Fletcher — or the producers or the screenwriter — who elected to frame Mercury’s homosexuality not just as a truth of self the singer at first can’t face, but as a grim temptation destined to doom him, like he’s some rock ‘n’ roll Jedi trying to shake off the Dark Side? (Weep for the brooding montage of back alleys and leather daddies set to “Another One Bites the Dust,” and for the film’s contention that Mercury essentially was seduced and kidnapped from the band for a spell by villainous gay men.) It’s easy to assume that Singer must have handled the early scene where 20-something Farrokh Bulsara (Mercury’s birth name) convinces his reluctant future bandmates to take him on as a singer. It turns on a discussion of the star-to-be’s singular dentition — Mercury had four teeth more than most of us, in his upper jaw — and peaks with his demonstration of vocal prowess. Essentially, the beats are the same as if he were some new mutant convincing Professor X he belonged on the team.
But who takes the blame for the choice to save most of the full-scale reproductions of Queen concert performances until the final minutes? Or the dizzying, unintentionally hilarious leaps in time? Will there be a cut more stupid-funny this year than the one where Mercury (played by Rami Malek), eager to secure funds to record a proper album, says to his aghast bandmate, “How much do you think we can get for this van?” and then a beat later we’re looking at pound notes being counted out into an open palm? In the years since 2007’s Walk Hard, the best Hollywood comedy of the last two decades, lives-of-musicians biopics have gotten shrewder and bolder. Bohemian Rhapsody seems to have been crafted by people who missed Get on Up or Love and Mercy. It’s one of those biopics where everything significant that happened to a famous person happens all at once, in the couple of seconds of any given year that we see dramatized. Creative inspiration is a lightning bolt summoned by the storms of drama: Deep into the film, Freddie shows up late to rehearsal and declares that he’s tired of anthems like “We Are the Champions,” and wants to cut music closer to the spirit of what’s happening “in the clubs.” After about 10 seconds of Queen members shouting about disco, bass player John Deacon thumbs out the riff to “Another One Bites the Dust,” and suddenly everyone stops and understands: Time to make magic.
It is magic, sometimes. At its best, this goofy Bohemian Rhapsody offers the pleasure of imitation, of spirited restagings, of guessing what song will be the next to emerge. That “Another One Bites the Dust” scene is, no joke, essentially a reprise — it’s the second time studio bickering has been curtailed by a band member thumping out part of a song most of the world soon will know. But the film flails when it plumbs the unfamiliar, the stuff not in the Wiki. The movie can’t be bothered to examine in any depth Mercury’s relationship to his heritage — he was born Parsi, in Zanzibar — or his family beyond an assurance that, in the end, his father once nodded in approval. Curious about Mercury’s artistic inspirations or how he convinced these straight lads to crash their hard rock into operettas and near-musical theater? Or what they made, in the 1970s and early 1980s, of their singer’s flamboyance — and obvious secrets? All of that is reduced to one shopping trip, a glimpse of the Marlene Dietrich photograph that will later inspire a famous Queen photo shoot, and one scene of an awkward party at Mercury’s house.
The performers do what they can. Malek is a marvel as the cocksure public Freddie. (He lip-syncs during the songs to the actual voice of Mercury.) And he shades the offstage man with doubt and determination — we can see him urging himself toward greatness, even when it demands a leap of faith. He shares one tender heartbreaker of a scene with Lucy Boynton, who plays Mercury’s wife, Mary Austin, who knows before Mercury does that he’s gay. Malek is moving in early scenes, as the band is on the road, facing the temptation of hunky truck drivers and hangers on, and out of fear refusing them.
The film ends with a painstaking recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance, during which almost everyone Mercury ever met is backstage, nodding at him, crying for him, dazed and touched and relieved. It’s corny as hell, but it still thrills, especially as it keeps going and going, through a full clutch of songs. Only after the movie, at home, watching the real Queen perform that same set on YouTube that I wondered: Why expend all that effort to remake a concert that already has 54 million views and is itself hugely powerful? Give us something marvelous we can’t already see anytime we want.