Bohemian Rhapsody

Year: 2018
Production Co: GK Films
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Bryan Singer
Producer: Graham King/Jim Beach/Robert De Niro
Writer: Anthony McCarten/Peter Morgan
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazello, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

A to B-style musician and actor biopics used to be exciting, but it's been a long time since those days. Rather than just level-headedly tell the story of the childhood, formative years and ultimate fate of an artist like they did in Ray or La Bamba, a lot of filmmakers opt for a much more focused, authorial approach, using the artist's life – sometimes just a tiny slice of it – to comment on some theme or storytelling form, even if it's just the people who found themselves in the orbit of stars.

While watching Bohemian Rhapsody I was reminded a little of films like My Week With Marilyn (the story of a hapless young Englishman who found himself in the bask of Monroe's glowing attention for only a few days), Behind the Candelabra (about how love can be suffocating and tiresome even in the midst of the glitzy, glamourous and privileged life of Liberace) and Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle's breakneck and angry pantomime of legendary jazzman Miles Davis with its deep theme of how stars make their own mythologies).

I was reminded of those more experimental examples of the genre while watching Bohemian Rhapsody because of how straightforward, even plodding, it was. It was as if everyone involved knew Rami Malek's magnetic embodiment of Freddie Mercury would shine so bright that messing with chronology or storytelling style would be too much for audiences to handle.

Because he is fantastic, especially during the musical sequences. I'm the first to admit I was never the biggest Queen fan and try as I might I couldn't remember ever seeing Mercury actually speak rather than sing. Malek's gigantic stunt teeth and his just-sucked-a-lemon voice and facial demeanour seemed to border on caricature, but by all accounts it was pitch perfect.

However, everything else outside his star-making turn feels a bit like box checking. The confident young man railing against his traditional upbringing, wanting to be a rock star, eventually realising his homosexuality, making it big, the inevitable fallout, feuds and Svengali hangers-on, AIDS and everything else in Mercury and his bandmates' musical and personal development feel a bit like chapters in a book you already know. If anything, the band's rise to fame seemed too easy and convenient, the real drama saved for them trying to deal with success (but maybe it really happened that way).

When bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazello – and yes, he is Tim, John Hammond's precocious grandson from Jurassic Park) starts playing the iconic bass riff from Another One Bites the Dust to shut everyone else up in the midst of an argument, or when drummer and co-vocalist Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) tries to hit the high notes of the titular track crying 'Galileo', it just feels like the script by Anthony McCarten/story by Peter Morgan started as a long list of stuff they thought fans would want to see.

There's feeling but not much depth, emotion but not much resonance and plot but not much theme or anything to say about Mercury and his life. Director Bryan Singer – who somehow managed to keep his name on it despite the sexual harassment accusations swirling around him – just puts his actors in the (admittedly great) costuming and make-up effects and points cameras at them while they deliver the script.

If you're a hardcore Queen fan it's probably thrilling enough just seeing how their history unfolded, even with the inevitable dramatic license McCarten and Morgan undoubtedly built in from the broad historic brush strokes like his Middle Eastern background and his marriage to friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff's script for Straight Outta Compton did exactly the same thing for NWA and it was perfectly enjoyable, after all.

But if you're not such a fan, you might find yourself wanting a bit more subtext, even while you marvel at Malek's performance.

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