Bohemian Rhapsody review: This karaoke-style paean is all style, no soul

The film may be a celebratory skip through the band's greatest hits, but its portrait of Freddie Mercury feels incomplete

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 24 October 2018 08:13 BST
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Bohemian Rhapsody Clip - We Will Rock You

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Dir: Bryan Singer; Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aiden Gillen. Cert PG 13, 134 mins.

There are two kinds of Queen. There is the version immortalised in their 1985 Live Aid performance, when frontman Freddie Mercury’s soaring, sustained call of “ayo!” managed to sound like a proclamation from Mount Olympus. This Queen proved that every musical barrier could be broken, from stadium anthems to disco, as long as the audience were kept entertained.

Then there is the Queen that’s slurred out at karaoke nights: loving and enthusiastic, but superficial in its sincerity. The new biopic that tracks the band’s history, despite using the 1985 performance as its triumphant closer, is firmly a karaoke-style paean.

It’s a film that’s stumbled through its controversies: Sacha Baron Cohen, originally cast as Mercury, departed from the project in 2013 after disagreements with the band; the decision to hire Bryan Singer was widely criticised due to his history of sexual abuse allegations; his involvement was further complicated when he was fired from the project due to “unreliable behaviour”, with Dexter Fletcher stepping in to complete the film. Singer is still credited as sole director due to DGA guidelines.

What’s arrived at the other side of this troubled production history is a work that’s all spirit, no soul. Bohemian Rhapsody serves as a “greatest hits” rendition of the band, with any “darkest lows” dutifully but lightly dealt with so as not to interrupt the flow. An almost full catalogue is on display here, lip-synched by its cast, even if that means the finale Live Aid performance has to cram in anything dedicated fans might bristle at if excluded.

Any major musical turning points (“We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust”) are given their own backstory, the beats are usually the same: the band’s members – Mercury (Rami Malek), Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) will all bicker like sitcom characters, before concluding that change is necessary because “that’s Queen”.

The film will often turn the mic back out to the audience, so they can nod and wink along when an EMI executive will proclaim the six-minute “Bohemian Rhapsody” is too long to be a hit. It’s all very on the nose – a little too much when Mike Myers’s appearance as said EMI executive seems to exist only for an excruciatingly forced reference to Wayne’s World.

That said, the live performances are shot with a vitality that does genuinely capture the band’s vim, but Bohemian Rhapsody suffers from conflicting intentions: it both wants to be a celebratory skip through the band’s history while also serving as a satisfying biopic of Mercury. The latter is the most harshly underserved, despite Malek’s very best efforts.

While studiously nailing Mercury’s theatrical approach to performance, he also lends a much-needed pensiveness to Mercury’s quieter moments. It’s a nuanced handling of the musician that, if given better material to work with, would surely have made Malek part of the awards conversation.

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Of course, months before a single camera had begun rolling on the film, concerns had already been expressed about how Mercury’s sexuality would be portrayed. He may have given all of himself on stage, but he was extremely guarded about his personal life, and that’s made interpretations of his sexuality unclear. Some say he was gay, others that he was bisexual.


The film, perhaps, leaves the matter similarly undefined, although the focus is placed heavily on his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who he penned the song “Love of My Life” about. His relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who was with Mercury until his death due to complications from AIDS, is disappointingly left as an epilogue untold. By ending on the Live Aid concert, Bohemian Rhapsody may end on a high, but also leaves out a crucial chapter in Mercury’s life.

Bohemian Rhapsody is released in UK cinemas 24 October.

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