Bohemian Rhapsody spent years in development hell, cycling through both stars and directors until it looked like it might never happen. It finally got on track with Rami Malek and, ahem, Bryan Singer (yes, that Bryan Singer), releasing in November of 2018 to mostly negative reviews but stunning box office receipts. Those receipts–plus the rapturous enthusiasm audiences have for the movie–made Bohemian Rhapsody immune to criticism and set it on a massive award season trajectory. Star Rami Malek claimed an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Award, and more. The movie itself won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama as well as Oscars in some of the most prestigious technical categories–including Film Editing. All along the way, everyone involved in the movie pretended Bryan Singer, who was fired from the set, didn’t exist.
Despite the accolades and despite the financial success, Bohemian Rhapsody is a garbage movie.
The Hard Road Making Bohemian Rhapsody
Why was it so hard to make a biopic of Freddie Mercury, the outsized lead singer of Queen, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991? Because the other band members are all still alive and very opinionated about Mercury’s role in their story. Lots of movies have troubled productions but end up okay, but in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, they seem to be good indicators of what went wrong.
According to Sacha Baron Cohen, the original actor to sign on to play Freddie, he dropped out because Queen insisted that Freddie die halfway through the film–and the rest should be about how the remaining members secured their legacy. Queen, however, insists that they were the ones to drop Cohen. A producer went so far as to suggest that Cohen had never been attached to the film in the first place and Queen member Brian May referred to Cohen’s casting as a “near disaster.” Members of Queen and producers are more discreet when it comes to Ben Whishaw, the second actor attached to the role (Whishaw has been tight-lipped himself).
When (alleged) sex offender Bryan Singer signed on things started to gel. Rami Malek joined and compromises about the movie’s story were reached. But during filming, Singer’s personal troubles began to catch up to him. He began to miss work. His behavior became erratic. Ultimately, it has been reported that Malek complained to the studio and had Singer removed from the project (Singer claims he left for personal reasons).
As a result, the studio had to cobble the movie together from the work Singer had completed and subsequent reshoots. Fans point out that the fact that they (arguably) succeeded makes this film a wild success story–and many credit its Oscar win in the prestigious Film Editing category to this process of finishing Singer’s work. Once they made it to the awards circuit, both Malek and anyone involved in the production did their very best to pretend Bryan Singer (still credited as director) didn’t exist. Unfortunately for them, he does, and his fingerprints are all over this movie.
Why Is It Garbage?
First, the compromises they had to make with the surviving members of Queen were not to improve the movie. It seems clear that they didn’t want it to look like Freddie was the only reason they succeeded, so the script keeps stopping to awkwardly point out what each band member contributed. They also clearly didn’t want to air their dirty laundry, so their lives appear rather sanitized and dull. That means that the only member of Queen who can complicate the plot for the standard music biopic plot (band gets together, band gets famous, band falls apart when fame gets to their heads, band gets back together) is Freddie–who is also the only member of Queen who is not alive to defend himself. Everyone else comes off looking rosy as can be while Freddie is put through the wringer.
That builds into the second reason it’s a garbage movie, which is that because Freddie is forced to bear the weight of all Queen’s problems (which isn’t even true, but we’ll get to that), and because Freddie is also the only gay member of Queen, the movie rapidly devolves into homophobia. It’s very possible this is accidental, but it is problematic no matter how you look at it (yes, Bryan Singer is gay, but he’s clearly had a curious relationship with his homosexuality, especially when it comes to his public face). Representation matters, and Freddie’s “lifestyle” is repeatedly blamed for the band’s struggles and for Freddie’s eventual death from AIDS complications.
Allow me to repeat that: this movie blames Freddie Mercury’s sexuality and morals for his AIDS diagnosis and ultimate death. That is SO fucking gross. It’s actually beyond gross: it’s disgusting. They make passing references to one of the other band members cheating on his wife but they’re so brief that it would be easy to miss them completely, and it’s handled in a way to make it seem like he’s not a bad guy. Freddie, in comparison, is made to suffer badly.
Which brings us to point number three: NONE OF THIS IS ACCURATE. Bohemian Rhapsody makes it look like Freddie breaks up Queen to pursue solo projects. Not only was he not the only member to pursue solo projects, Queen never even broke up in the first place! They were always together and always touring. In fact, the movie claims Queen hadn’t performed together in years when they agreed to perform at Live Aid. In reality, they released an album, The Works, a year before Live Aid and finished a tour a mere eight weeks before Live Aid took place (Rolling Stone has a great article about the factual inaccuracies of this movie).
Now if all this were true, it would be hard to lobby charges of homophobia against the film. But it’s not true: they deliberately chose to portray events in a way that makes Freddie Mercury look bad compared to his living bandmates. That it does this to Freddie for the sake of making an entertaining movie only makes it worse–they sacrificed the gay man to the altar of cliché. We’re so used to demonizing gay people in pop culture that most audience members clearly don’t even notice when it’s staring them right in the face.
Oh, and the movie itself might be entertaining if you can get by the homophobia (I can’t), but here’s one unavoidable truth: Bohemian Rhapsody is a shitty movie. It adheres to music biopic tropes so steadfastly that it almost reads like a parody, except it isn’t. They want you to take this shit seriously. So much of this movie is just fucking dumb and cheesy–whether it’s Brian May clapping out the beat to “We Will Rock You” while his band members stare at him in adoring wonder or the entirely fictional executive who tells them that not only will no radio station ever play “Bohemian Rhapsody,” no one will ever headbang in a car to it–a moment made even more over the top because they got Mike Myers, who literally head banged in a car to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World, to play the executive.
Just stop it, Bohemian Rhapsody. I can’t anymore.
Long Story Short
Jesus fucking Christ, I can’t with this movie. Rami Malek (a Best Actor winner for this role) does a fine job portraying Freddie Mercury but the rest of the movie is a godforsaken mess. It’s so adherent to music biopic tropes that it almost feels like a satire but it’s alarmingly serious. The story plays so fast and loose with what actually happened, and panders so hard to the surviving members of Queen, that it actually manages to become homophobic. This is not the legacy Freddie Mercury deserves.