Great movies often have great performances, but I think it must be harder for an actor to give a great performance in the midst of a bad movie. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? Bohemian Rhapsody does a pretty terrible job of illustrating the story of the iconic 1970s British rock band Queen, but Rami Malek’s blazing performance as Freddie Mercury is so great that it almost redeems this slapdash, bloated, maladroit biopic.
The film opens in 1970, when Farrokh Bulsara is a Heathrow luggage worker with an overbite and a love of cats who rebels against his Parsi family’s traditional values by embracing rock and roll as well as opera. When he goes to a pub and finds that the band playing there has just lost its lead singer, he auditions on the spot and gets the job. In short order, he changes the band’s name to “Queen,” and legally changes his name to “Freddie Mercury.”
The problem here is director Bryan Singer. He made his reputation with action thrillers, and this project plays to none of his strengths. The whole idea of a PG-13-rated movie about Mercury is perverse to start with. I’ll leave it to rock historians to pick apart all this movie’s factual inaccuracies. (For instance, Mercury did not tell his bandmates about his AIDS diagnosis just before their performance at Live Aid, as this film has it.) Those aside, this movie has all the continuity of a playlist on shuffle. Success seems to happen for the band overnight and without much impact on their lives. Freddie’s realization about his homosexuality comes from out of the blue, as do his drug use and the bass riff for “Another One Bites the Dust.” It’s ironic that a gay filmmaker handles the coming-out story so clumsily.
It’s even more ironic that a director named Singer has so little feel for music. The songs are presented as if they’re being checked off a list, with no insight about the insane musical ideas behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” or why Queen struck a chord with the culture. We see lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) come up with the stomping rhythm for “We Will Rock You,” but nothing about how the rest of the song comes about. Aside from the songs themselves, we have no idea what made Queen a rock band that stood the test of time.
(Oh, and if you’re uneasy about seeing this because of the sexual assault allegations swirling around Singer, there’s a scene here with Freddie groping a waiter that will further trouble you. I will add that Colette, a better film about a gay artist and celebrity in a past decade, is opening at the Modern next week. It’s directed by a gay man who has not been publicly accused of being a sexual predator.)
Just look at Malek, though. TV watchers know the 37-year-old American actor of Egyptian descent as the star of Mr. Robot, but he has contributed memorable supporting turns in films, too: the cult acolyte in The Master, the carjacked driver in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the neophyte social worker in Short Term 12. I mean, he even improved Need for Speed. Here, he simply becomes Mercury, playing the piano, lip-syncing to Mercury’s vocals for all he’s worth, and strutting around the stage with a swagger that’s manly and queeny at the same time. His musical portrayal would be enough, but he also patches some of the holes in the script by providing a through-line of a self-loathing man’s quest to accept himself even while he sings anthems for the gay boys in the audience like him. I’m torn as to whether his performance is wasted here or whether the badness of Bohemian Rhapsody simply throws his excellence into higher relief. Either way, he deserves to headline better movies than this.
Starring Rami Malek. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Anthony McCarten. Rated PG-13.