Why is Bryan Singer’s biopic about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury called Bohemian Rhapsody? If the answer is simply that this is the name of a smash-hit song, then the very core of the director’s famously troubled production is an ethos as deep as a bumper sticker. Slap a couple of well-known words on the poster to attract some eyeballs, and who cares if the title makes sense?
At least the hokey Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line contains a moment – admittedly laughable – in which Reese Witherspoon, playing June Carter Cash, blurts to Johnny “you can’t walk no line!”, and in the very next scene the Man in Black belts out the marquee track. This bit of the script was annotated with ‘lightbulb moment’ and ‘here we explain the relevance of the title’.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if Singer had shown Mercury interrupted mid-recording session by a colleague crying out “what do you think this is, some kind of bohemian rhapsody?” Alas, there is an assumption that the bohemian is Mercury and the film itself is a rhapsody. But the definition of “rhapsody” refers to either a musical composition irregular in form (and there is nothing irregular about this structurally unambitious biopic) or “an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling.” That last word is the operative part of the sentence, of relevance to this film given it is conspicuously devoid of it.
Singer certainly delivers energy, particularly in the foot-stomping climax: a rousing re-enactment of the band’s legendary 1985 Live Aid performance in London. But we are reminded throughout the film that energy and feeling are not the same thing. Regular sampling of Queen songs gives Bohemian Rhapsody, at the peek of its powers, a kind of jukebox vitality, which never fully compensates for the lack of feeling – arising from the drama’s aversion to non-sanitised impressions of reality.
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Singer treats his protagonist’s homosexuality and narcotic use the same way: parts of his life to bathe in shadows and allude to. We see a peck on the lips from a potential lover and fleeting vision of white powder on a hand mirror – but Singer remains uninterested in his subjects beyond their musical legacy. He plays it straight, so to speak, the formal and structural qualities of the film not even attempting to reflect the boldness and audacity of the band’s great, and perhaps inimitable work.
History, as they say, is written by the victors, or in this case the survivors. In this band-approved version of events Mercury is a selfish prima donna who arrives at recording sessions late and wasted, and sells out his beloved muso comrades for a lucrative solo contract. That may have been the case, but the film has a credibility issue: like the parade of bad wigs worn by the cast you cannot take it seriously.
The performances feel arranged rather than directed, with Rami Malek (best-known as the lead of TV’s Mr Robot) relishing every scene as if he were on a stage performing. The consensus appears to be that he is the best thing about the film, and I suppose this is true: Malek’s face, his swag, his odd pronunciation and speech (projected through buck teeth) will linger in the memory.
But this kind of mimicry-obsessed acting, determined to transform human experience into a virtual facsimile – as if a good performance were a form of forgery – has its limitations. For this style to truly enthrall (as it did in Chopper and In Cold Blood) the film around the performance needs to do more than look its subject in the mirror, admiring the lifelike reflection. Here it feels like a case of talking (or singing) loud and saying nothing.