Even the most mediocre biopics—which, I’m afraid, Bohemian Rhapsody is—can provide certain pleasures. Much of that enjoyment hinges on the lead performance and Rami Malek, as Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, is uncannily good in this film, capturing the artist in all of his high-stepping, glammed up, hairy-chested glory. Then it can be fun, in a comfort food sort of way, to watch the tried-and-true formula play out: band is formed, briefly struggle, rise to wild heights, excessively indulge in the spoils of their success, break up—rinse and repeat.
But Bohemian Rhapsody has a secret weapon, one that shoots directly to the biopic pleasure centers, and that’s the irresistible arena rock of Queen, which the film obtained full rights to (and wisely doesn’t mess with much, except for a few careful dubs—no one can sing like Freddie).
Critics have been known to disparage these sorts of movies as filmed Wikipedia pages, and Bohemian Rhapsody, which is directed with generic competence by Bryan Singer, is guilty as charged. It insists on showing us all the major touchstones of Freddie’s rise to fame: Freddie does an impromptu audition for the band that will soon be Queen in a parking lot; he explains his name change—he was born Farrokh Bulsara—to his stunned parents at a family dinner; he pitches the extravagant concept for his rock opera to a skeptical studio head played by Mike Myers; and so on.
There was some fear, based on the trailer, that the film wouldn’t show Freddie’s queerness, but that concern was unwarranted. Yes, Freddie is gay in this film—although as a young man he did live with a woman, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), and she remained his most treasured friend for life—and he does get diagnosed with AIDS. At the same time, the film feels pretty tentative about displaying Freddie’s gayness—while it alludes to his promiscuity, it shows only a few relatively chaste kisses with men. What’s more, Bohemian Rhapsody features a real-life character— Freddie’s agent, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech)—and his depiction is downright homophobic. Prenter, who was in love with Freddie, is shown as a predatory figure who manages to estrange Freddie from the people who love him most, ply him with drugs, and, ultimately betray his trust in a salacious, tell-all interview. It’s pretty grim stuff.
Equally grim is the way the film messes with the timeline. Bohemian Rhapsody’s smartest and boldest move is recreating Queen’s iconic Live-Aid performance, nearly in its entirety. That’s an awesome opportunity for Malek, who rose to fame on USA’s Mr. Robot, to strut his stuff—and he’s nothing short of mesmerizing. Still, the scene has an extra poignance in the film because Freddie is performing after he’s been diagnosed with AIDS. I watched the scene, in awe of Freddie’s embrace of life and joyful, primal sexuality in the face of death, and it moved me to tears. Turns out, Mercury was diagnosed two years after that concert. I’m not a stickler for total accuracy in biopics, but yeesh.
Bohemian Rhapsody may be shallow and manipulative, but Malek’s performance is the real deal (although I confess it took me a while to adjust to the impossibly large set of prosthetic teeth they shoved in his mouth, approximating Mercury’s own famous chompers). Between Malek and the incredible music, the film gets the job done—but just barely.