This review is part of the LAMB’s Oscar coverage this year, in which each award category and Best Picture nominee has its own dedicated post. As no-one else seemed interested in Bohemian Rhapsody I offered to cover it instead, then languished for a few weeks working out just how I was going to do that. I’m posting it here as well just in case the makers of the 1001 book lose theirs minds even more than usual and add it to the 2019 edition. Here we go.
The problem with writing this piece on Bohemian Rhapsody is that, for the LAMB Devours the Oscars feature, when dealing with the Best Picture nominees the intention is to discuss roughly why the film in question should win Best Picture and, quite frankly, Bohemian Rhapsody shouldn’t. Bear in mind, this is coming from someone who quite liked the film, enjoyed it even, and who thinks it at least deserves a place in the discussion for the award (more than some of the other nominees touted as a front runner, cough Roma cough). It’s just that absolutely, under no circumstances should it win. Even casting aside the controversies surrounding how-is-he-still-directing Bryan Singer, the fact that the surviving members of Queen had a big say in what was and wasn’t included in the film resulted in a narrative that’s had the sharpest troughs filled in for a far smoother ride that seemingly hits the beats of the band’s history without dallying in too much of the drama. Elsewhere there’s comically poor editing (that still someone garnered a nomination), a vastly unbalanced tone and pacing, a Mike Myers cameo that’s far too nudge-nudge yet still feels the need to hammer itself home – I’m shocked his scenes didn’t involve Dana Carvey walking past a window and waving at the camera – and a general feeling that we’ve seen all this before.
Therein truly lies the problem. You see, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t actually the first music biopic in history. I’m pretty sure it’s not even the second, and it suffers by the unavoidable comparisons to all the many that have come before, exacerbated by the existence of the music biopic parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which Bohemian Rhapsody regrettably follows almost note for note, from the disapproving parents, relationship concerns, song crafting and issues with drugs, there’s very little here that we’ve not seen before. Were this a biopic of a more run-of-the-mill artist, Status Quo for example (no offence to the Quo, I’m a fan), then this would almost be acceptable, but it stings particularly hard with Queen, a band infamous for their musical experimentation, so much so that much of the middle of Bohemian Rhapsody is spent in the recording studio, just sort of playing around with what they can do with the music, and those scenes are great.
That, for me, is what helps rise the film above the mire many others are content to drop it in. The casting of the band and their interactions with one another are terrific. Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy play original members Brian May and Roger Taylor. They look perfect – aided by some stellar costume and wig work – and their identities within the band are well realised, but somebody give a gold star to whoever cast Joe Mazzello as bass guitarist John Deacon. Elsewhere in the cast there’s Lucy Boynton in the thankless role of the put-upon girlfriend and Aidan Gillen and Tom Hollander as the band’s management over the years. Everyone is at the very least good if not excellent. The star of the show is of course Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, who is also amongst the favourites to pick up a Best Actor award this Sunday, and if that happens then I’ll be fine with it, because he was certainly better than Bradley Cooper, and whilst Viggo Mortenson is almost unrecognisable in Green Book, his portrayal is a little too video game plumber to be taken entirely seriously. I’ve not yet seen Vice or At Eternity’s Gate, but I think we can stop giving Christian Bale awards for getting fat when there are plenty of overweight actors who might have loved to play Dick Cheney instead. Malek is fantastic, especially when you consider in reality he comes off as far more introverted, so to go from that to playing Freddie Mercury, one of the most charismatic, attention-grabbing front-men of recent decades, is a remarkable feat. It’s a shame that during the end credits we’re shown footage of the actual band performing, where it becomes ever more apparent that Sacha Baron Cohen should have had the role, as was originally intended, because he’s spot-on looks-wise, and might have had a crack at the singing too, which Malek disappointingly lip-syncs to throughout.
That’s the other appeal here, the soundtrack. Whilst we can’t give Bohemian Rhapsody credit for the quality of the music, it’s still very entertaining listening to it in a communal cinema setting, something I’ve never had the opportunity to do before on this scale. Queen has long been one of my favourite bands, especially in sheer volume of classics, so this, and the stunning recreation of their Live Aid performance for the final segment of the film, was a delight. I also approve of the entirely justified amount of shade thrown at I’m In Love With My Car, which is frankly not the strongest effort from the group.
There’s a scene in the middle of the film, between the band, the managers and Mike Myers’ EMI executive Ray Foster, in which Queen declare their hatred for formulas, and that they’re a complete waste of time, whilst Foster says he likes formulas, and that formulas work. Ignoring that the plural of formula is actually formulae, this is a very odd scene, as it spells out the very problem with Bohemian Rhapsody, making it feel as though the film was made not by, or even for our protagonists, but by the producers attempting to stand in the way of their creativity. So we see the history of the band, from inception to Live Aid performances, step by predictable step. Had this instead taken the path of more focused biopics like Lincoln or Selma, looking at a particular moment in time, for example just the creation of A Night at the Opera, or just the run up to Live Aid, this could have been a better film more worthy of this discussion, but in sticking to that beloved formula, Bohemian Rhapsody was robbed of everything that Queen was about.
Still, it’s ultimately an entertaining viewing experience with great performances and a catchy soundtrack, so it’s still a recommendation to watch, it just cannot take home the gold on Sunday.
Choose Film 7/10