The box office success of Bohemian Rhapsody is something I couldn't have foreseen. Can you blame me? First, most music biopics don't do that well; they are designed not as blockbusters but as awards fodder for movie stars. Next, Bohemian Rhapsody spent years in turnaround, with various actors – including Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Whishaw – poised to play Freddie Mercury, only to be shown the door. Rami Malek was finally cast in the role, but despite his Emmy for the cult TV series Mr. Robot, he's hardly a household name. Then director Bryan Singer was fired near the end of production, for reasons still under dispute, and replaced by Dexter Fletcher, an Englishman whose last directorial effort was the middling Eddie the Eagle. None of this bode well for the film's success. Yet here we are, less than two weeks in and already Bohemian Rhapsody has earned $100 million in the US alone.
What went right? How, after all this mess, did the film manage to connect with so many people?
The story is mostly your average Behind the Music stuff, charting the band's origins in 1970, when Freddie Mercury joined the erstwhile Smile as their new singer, to their glorious semi-comeback during Live Aid in 1985. But Queen's music has clearly enjoyed renewed – in fact amplified – popularity since Mercury's death in 1991, thanks to Wayne's World, benefit concerts, a stage musical, Adam Lambert touring with Queen founders Brian May and Roger Taylor, and a new generation's posthumous adoration for Mercury's voice and charisma.
Also, thank God for Rami Malek and his thoroughly committed performance as Mercury. Though Brits will quibble with his accent, I think he gives us the essence of Freddie. He's far and away the greatest thing in the movie, and often the only great thing in the movie.
The casting in general is inspired, with Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joe Mazzello all spot-on doppelgängers for May, Taylor, and bassist John Deacon, respectively. (The wigs, as well as Julian Day's period costuming, do a lot of the convincing.) But while the film gives us a fairly believable look at the members of Queen bonding and squabbling – when in doubt, just have some character say "We're a family" every few minutes – this is Freddie's story through and through. Malek invests the role with great pathos, and we walk away thinking that we got a sense of who Freddie Mercury really was.
Otherwise, the film is problematic.
Its first hour is fun, but the story bogs down in its second half (especially as it depicts Mercury's sexual awakening as a joyless descent – which it ultimately was, but he did have fun for a few years). The editing, by Singer stalwart John Ottman, is frequently scattershot. Anthony McCarten's screenplay has some witty repartee, but is equally full of cliches. There is also much quizzical and downright annoying fudging with the band's chronology. Why, for instance, does the film explicitly tell us that "We Will Rock You" was written in 1980, when we know it came out three years and two albums earlier? It's like saying Darth Vader made his first appearance in The Empire Strikes Back.
I can affirm that, despite what other critics may say, the film does not tap dance around Freddie Mercury's homosexuality. Facts are once again fudged when it comes to Freddie learning his HIV diagnosis and sharing the news with his bandmates, but at least here it serves the drama, since Bohemian Rhapsody concludes with a nearly minute-by-minute recreation of Queen's Live Aid performance, and in real life Mercury didn't know he had HIV until two years later. That extended concert reenactment, by the way, is a curious way to end the movie. They may as well have just run footage of the real Queen at the real Live Aid under the end credits.