While I know the majority of the reviews on this site are for films that have been long out of the theater (if they were ever even in the theater), I don’t typically do reviews for films that I watch at home unless it is part of a feature. It sets a nice boundary line for me in terms of which films I do and don’t cover so that I’m not constantly writing or debating which films deserve to be reviewed/would actually receive attention if I did review them. I’m making an exception today not because I feel passionately about this film (more on that in a bit), but out of a sense that there should be a review for it at one point. After all, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (feel free to join my live thread tonight) and to date, it is the only Best Picture nominee to not get a review by myself or someone else. It is also still in theaters, so it does have a bit of relevance in that regard.
Back to that bit about why I decided to review the film. I actually had zero desire to even see this film. When it was first announced as a Sacha Baron Cohen project, I was intrigued. I grew up liking Queen and his work in the past had been… erratic in quality, but the premise for the biopic was sound. When that one was cancelled for one that would be more directly approved by the band itself and as a tamer, PG-13 celebration of Freddie Mercury, all interest was gone. I was going to pass it up until it started generating Award Buzz, the dread started sinking in, and finally that fateful day came when it was nominated in numerous categories including Best Picture (the one I couldn’t just ignore). I was going to see either it or Vice, but thankfully I chose Vice because as I was sitting in the theater before the movie, I saw The Atlantic article.
I had discounted the movie before seeing that the patron saint of mediocrity Bryan Singer was helming it, so I can’t pretend he was the prime reason for my ambivalence (even though he wouldn’t even wind up finishing the film because he walked off the film). The article was hardly a shock considering it had been common knowledge for years what kind of person he was, but it did strengthen my resolve to not pay to see it (thank you Netflix DVD for coming through). While I know it will be hard for a lot of you, I would like to try to keep the rest of this review and the comments away from talk about Singer and his actions.
Speaking of things I am not going to discuss (if for different reasons), the infamous “Freddie, you’re gay” line is thing is hard for me to comment on since I have no meaningful insight into either Freddie’s true sexuality or bi erasure. I can say it’s handled within the story in a leaden fashion and as one of the many examples of the people closest to him being supportive, their main character trait. As for the whole moving up the AIDS diagnosis for additional dramatic impact controversy (where it ties the Live Aid performance to Freddie’s AIDS), that’s kind of par for the course in these kinds of films. I’m more concerned how terribly it was handled as it deflates any impact of the diagnosis and subsequent reveals and the need to combine both events into one wind up crowding both out.
With all that baggage out of the way, how’s the actual movie? The film opens with the standard biopic tease of what’s to come as he coughs a bunch (because AIDS) and walks slowly up to the stage at the Live Aid concert. The rest of the film is a linear, breakneck look at his career. I appreciate the decision to not jump around needlessly in time and mess with flashbacks (the in medias res opening much less so), but I can’t say it makes for an exciting end product. Farrokh Bulsara (played by Rami Malek of Mr. Robot) is working as a baggage handler and living with his family, heading out every night and calling himself Freddie. There are clear identity issues when it comes to Freddie’s Parsi heritage and it’s something that would eventually precipitate him changing his name to Freddie Mercury. It also threatens to be the most interesting thing about the film, but in the movie can’t slow down enough for that, largely dropping the subplot by the second half and undercutting anything it might have to say with scenes such as one where it features the band all rushing over themselves to embrace Freddie’s ancestry, presumably added to make them seem like such great dudes.
On one night out, he sees the band Smile perform and after their lead singer quits, he of course wins them over with a quick song of his own. He even meets his lifelong friend (and later girlfriend) Mary Austin at that same party just to keep things nice and simple. They start performing and recording an album and in no time, they are one of the biggest bands in the world as we see random snippets of them coming up with instant inspiration of their biggest hits. Granted it’s partly the writing, but the actors portraying the rest of Queen are pretty terrible, left mostly to breathlessly spit out their lines and be portrayed as one-dimensional, supportive types. They may initially have a problem with his teeth and push back when Freddy starts acting unprofessionally, but that’s about it. There’re a couple times where there’s a subtext of homophobia (mostly from the drummer), but you can almost feel the meddling hands pulling back enough so that none of the band members are portrayed as actually being such. They are the most boring rock stars ever leaving a party early and making it through the movie clean. I guess it’s nice to not see the normal drug narrative from them, but there has to be at least some kind of hook for these profoundly dull people somewhere.
But who cares about those three? It’s Mercury and consequentially Malek who we are here for. I think it was a mistake to play a clip of the real Queen at the end of the movie because it really did just show how it was impossible to truly capture Freddie Mercury. Malek’s performance feels like a really good SNL impression, as if they were casting him for a parody of these standard type music biopics. He does what he can, but at noo point did I ever really buy into the performance or did it win me over. The film comes complete with an all the hits soundtrack (not just from Queen) and I guess I should be grateful for the music since at least it kept me from nodding off, but it wasn’t very inspired either. The much vaunted Live Aid sequence is… fine? I mean I’m not one to throw stones at special effects since I recently complimented the special effects in a fifty-year-old Doctor Who episode, but certain crowd scenes looked pretty obviously green screened and I was mostly thinking during it “Maybe I should go dig out the actual Live Aid performance videos instead”. It’s the same thing I thought during A Star is Born where I do not really need to see the whole performance to get an effect, especially in this case where the real thing still exists.
Freddie Mercury lived an interesting life and there’s some scenes that seem like they should be absolutely fascinating, but more than anything, it manages to make them into ones of paralyzing boredom. The film seems so eager to move from point to point in his career, offering little to say about each. It’s far more interested in expository dialogue and trivia of questionable accuracy. I can’t say this is the worst Best Picture nominee, Green Book existence is far more offensive, and Vice was more of a colossal misfire, but at least they gave me plenty to get good and worked up about during. Bohemian Rhapsody‘s greatest sin was stamping out all the life from the cookie cutter music biopic it set out to make.