‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ review: Another biopic bites the dust

At one point in the middle of the music video montage that is “Bohemian Rhapsody” (calling it a “film” would be an insult to better films like “Popstar” or “Walk Hard”), Freddie Mercury and Co. walk out of a meeting with their record label, dismayed at the suits’ fundamental misunderstanding of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” There is then a montage of Queen performing the 6-minute opus on tour as fans rapturously applaud them, all while film editor John Ottman overlaid seemingly every negative review the band ever received for the song’s release on screen.

This review originally appeared in my pop culture newsletter, Jacob’s Letter. Subscribe here!

The effect is distracting and off-putting and feels like a giant middle finger to the audience’s intelligence, but it’s the film’s thesis: Screw you if you don’t like it, because you just don’t get it.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was nominated for five Oscars at this year’s ceremonies, and won four: Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Actor, for Rami Malek as Mercury. It was also the source of much controversy after director Bryan Singer was removed from the film after reports of tardiness on set, and, more importantly, was the focus of a series of sexual assault and harassment lawsuits going back 20 years. (Nobody bothered to mention that during the acceptance speeches at the Oscars.) [I also saw this film by checking it out from the library, so as to not give any of my money to this thing.] But more on those awards later.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” the film is an insipid, timid, lifeless paint-by-the-numbers biopic about a band that was anything but. That it shares a name with one of the most inventive pieces of music this century is a travesty.

Somehow it manages to make a standard rise-rise-drugs/fame probems-fall-rise plot point film out of a band whose meteoric rise wasn’t quite so linear, and manages to make every other member of Queen feel like merely a supporting character in Freddie Mercury’s life.

The film is not subtle with any of its cliches or wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments, either. “We’re under pressure” is something a band member actually says before getting the idea to write the song. When the film decides it cares about Mercury’s sexuality (a topic it seems scared to broach, which is weird, given how unafraid it is to examine everything else), the visual cue to signify this is Mercury staring at a restroom that says “MENS” while on the phone with his wife. Scenes aren’t set here so much as they just happen, one biopic event tumbling into the next without much context, or forethought.

This is a script where in a later scene, Mercury’s now ex-wife, upon seeing his office in shambles while trying to complete his solo album, remarks, “Why Freddie, you’re burning the candle at both ends!”

Nobody here seems to be having any fun, except maybe Malek. I’ve never seen a film that so willingly didn’t want to be a film anymore and instead felt content to merely check boxes off of a studio checklist for a mass audience. Apparently it worked; the film grossed $903,655,259 worldwide.

And the Academy seemed to like it, too, going so far as to nominate “Bohemian Rhapsody” for Best Picture — the only category in which it was nominated but did not win.

As for Malek’s award: He’s not even singing the Mercury songs, and his performance largely rests on imitation. But it was either that or award Bradley Cooper for “A Star Is Born,” which the Academy largely snubbed that night. I hope Malek gets recognized for more throughout his career.

I will concede the Best Editing nod. After Singer was kicked off set for being an alleged sex criminal and for being absent from the film, director Dexter Fletcher (who also directed Elton John biopic “Rocketman”) took over. Editor John Ottman cobbled together the final cut from both versions of the film, resulting in a series of montages set to Queen’s music that’s nothing but hagiography. The award was probably the Academy throwing Ottman a bone for finally finishing this movie, even though they had films with more editorial flourishes like like “BlackKklansman” and “Vice” sitting right there.

At least the music’s good. The Live Aid show that ends the film (even though its chronology in Queen’s timeline is wrong) is magic. But that’s because it’s music performed by the real Queen, with a verve for life that this film never fully conjures up.

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