The making of Bohemian Rhapsody was a ridiculous, impossible journey that almost never was, just like the song "Bohemian Rhapsody," just like the band Queen itself. But unlike the band and the song, which found the exact right formula of heart and insanity to make something magical, the movie fails to synthesize the band and Freddie Mercury's life. It can't decide whether it's a Freddie Mercury biopic or a Queen biopic, and is instead neither, falling closer to an extended tribute with a light backstory.
Original plans for the movie began in 2010 with Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury before he walked away due to vague creative differences, then another Mercury was cast and walked away before the film finally settled on Rami Malek (it only took three tries to find someone who, like Mercury, was not white).
Two-thirds of the way through filming Bohemian Rhapsody, director Bryan Singer stopped showing up to set, claiming he was tending to a sick relative. Coincidentally, this happened at the same time he was being sued for assaulting a minor (not the first time). Singer was fired and Dexter Fletcher joined to direct the final third of the movie, but still the project is credited to Singer.
Before he was Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, he was Farrokh Bulsara, airport employee. One night, after watching a local band perform, he saunters over and asks if he can join. From there, it's a quick journey to becoming Queen, and the triumph of the first singles and global success. In between, there are snippets of Mercury's personal life — his relationship with fiancée/best friend Mary Austin, his scattered romances with men, his loneliness disguised with intoxication and lavish parties.
There is not enough background on Mercury's life for it to be a comprehensive biopic, but there's also not a deep enough understanding of the band to be about them either. There are glimpses into Mercury's family life and childhood, how he was born on an island off of Tanzania to Indian Parsi parents before immigrating to England. He changed his first name to fit in, and his last name to be a rockstar. The movie only skims the surface of his relationship with his culture and identity.
In one of the band’s first recording sessions, one of the members says, seemingly out of nowhere, "we have to get experimental," leading them to play their instruments in zany ways. This, along with Mercury's flamboyant charm, is supposed to explain how the band found its unique sound but offers little to no explanation as to how Queen really came to be. It's difficult to explain the implausibility of Queen and Freddie Mercury, who managed to become bigger-than-life, but still full of heart and generosity. Against all odds, the band worked. And against all odds, Bohemian Rhapsody got made but failed to capture the passionate absurdity of its subject.
And while Bohemian Rhapsody doesn't omit Mercury's sexuality or the complications from AIDS that eventually killed him, it does skim over the details, leading to an after-school-special feel. There isn't much insight into how Mercury handled his illness, and the reactions are instead filtered through the point of view of his bandmates, who seem very understanding and non-judgmental of the whole thing. Then again, the movie had heavy input from said bandmates.
What makes Bohemian Rhapsody seem the most like a self-mythologizing tribute is the way they incorporated Mercury's real singing voice. There is no pretending that anyone could ever match Mercury's vocal talents, which were so unique they prompted scientific studies. Instead, Malek passionately lip-syncs to the real thing, which almost works. It begs the question of whether or not watching this movie is any better or worse than watching a good tribute band.
The movie culminates with that legendary Live Aid performance. They don't recreate it in full but come close. The recreation feels nearly like a dream, with a CGI rendering of the 72,000 person crowd at Wembley Stadium. It's an impressive moment when Malek does a call and response, demonstrating an intoxicating power over the crowd. But that can't be attributed to Malek, or the CGI, or Bryan Singer, or even the other band members. That's all Freddie.