No movie genre has been so exhaustingly averse to evolution quite as much as the musical biopic. From a creative perspective, the history of mainstream musical biopics is basically a stringently straight line. The financial perspective paints a different picture, though, which further explains why the genre is so stubbornly static. Movies about popular musicians deliver the goods to audiences that (a) like said popular musicians and (b) want to know what happened in the minutes before and after each hit song was recorded for the first time.
This thirst for pandering entertainment is what keeps the musical biopic genre alive and 2018 proved that such thirst runs deep for the parched legion of Queen fans. Bohemian Rhapsody made a lot of money and likely inspired a lot of toe-tapping at the multiplexes, but it’s as predictably unadventurous as its title.
When it comes to naming these things, you either pick an iconic song (Great Balls of Fire, Walk the Line) or say screw it and just name it after the singer (Ray). I guess they could have gone with Mercury Rising, but that’s already the name of a Bruce Willis thriller and a quickie Queen documentary, so there goes that. Thanks to Wayne’s World and the general human penchant for group singing when an awesome song plays, Bohemian Rhapsody is the default Queen tune that instantly screams “this is a movie about Queen!”
That’s all the movie really needs to communicate because that’s truly all it is. Even by the shoddy standards of musical biopics, few successful movies have ever set their personal bar so low and just slipped underneath it so comfortably. Bohemian Rhapsody is only what it lazily pledges to be, which is fine if that’s all you’re looking for. It’s the patronizing response to every question about Queen music that can be answered by either playing a Queen song or showing a quick clip of a band member discussing a Queen song.
Technically speaking, watching a movie is easier than reading a Wikipedia page, since the former requires only that your eyes and ears be open, while the latter asks that you be literate and able to navigate the world wide web, so Bohemian Rhapsody is as quick and simple a shot of Queen-focused behind the scenes info as anyone’s gonna get. There’s no more immediate and direct a way to learn that Queen made beautiful music by doing things like talking it out and spending time in recording studios.
There’s also a crash course in Queen frontman Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), touching on his sexuality, his traditional family, his energetic stage presence, his proclivity for cats (the best part of the movie, to be honest), and his prominent front teeth. All musical biopics hinge on the ability of the lead performer to deliver an impressive act of mimicry. In this regard, Malek reinforces the inert quality of the genre, doing a fine impersonation of an iconic individual, just as several actors in similar situations have done before him.
He has the added benefit of playing a wildly charismatic and freely flamboyant character in a sea of dull personalities, so he’s never in danger of being upstaged. The other members of the band are all depicted as total squares that reject the partying lifestyle while putting punctuality on a pedestal. As portrayed here, Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) may as well have been cardboard cutouts that Freddie made look good whenever it counted.
The actual living band members were significantly involved in the long-gestating project, so it’s no surprise that they all come across as good, friendly family men that humbly made music history. The issue is that they’re dreadfully boring as movie characters and the performances are unnaturally awkward.
They certainly come across as good guys, but it’s difficult not to once Freddie’s manager and eventual lover Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) shows up. Paul is the movie’s most blatant villain, a skeevy, conniving outsider that literally lurks in the shadows for almost all his scenes. He has a sinister visage and an eerie presence that is emphasized by numerous scenes in which he stands in a corner and gives the band his two cents, only for all the non-Freddie members to tell him to piss off.
Paul does everything to assert himself as the bad guy in a tale of gentle souls. The only opportunity he unfortunately misses is to nefariously twirl the moustache that he sports for the entirety of his onscreen antagonism. He’s so inherently rife with comedic evilness that such a thing would feel utterly appropriate.
Speaking of evil, adding a particularly sour taste to the experience are the multiple allegations of fired-but-still-credited director Bryan Singer sexually assaulting underage boys, a scandal that has been rumoured for years, but is only now reaching its boiling point in the wake of the movie’s awards season success. Singer was dropped from the project with only a few weeks left in production after failing to show up on set for several days and then asking for a month-long delay in the shoot. Unsurprisingly, he was absent on the movie’s press tour as well.
Whatever comes from Singer’s situation, the movie has become a callous reminder of how the road to Hollywood success is paved on the backs of less powerful people whose voices struggle to be heard. Even now, those who stand to reap further benefits from the movie’s potential Oscar wins are eager to brush aside the allegations that others are fighting to drag out into the light. It’s a terrible situation that transcends this otherwise forgettable movie.
For the people that just want to celebrate Queen and jam to their music, this Bohemian Rhapsody exists to serve that very purpose. It doesn’t seem enough to justify 135 minutes of cinematic pablum, but musical biopics are almost always quite content to be superficial summaries. They’re like celluloid amoebas that know their way to a greatest hits album. The genre remains stupidly stagnant, but as long as each movie delivers what a global audience wants, it’ll likely remain this way. At the very least, now we can learn how this song or that song came together, all by doing little more than listening to the tunes for the umpteenth time. How’s that for evolution?