'Bohemian Rhapsody': What the Critics Are Saying
Does the biopic about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury hit all the right notes? Critics weigh in.
The critics have weighed in on Bohemian Rhapsody, with most reviews praising the work of lead actor Rami Malek. However, feelings on the film itself appear to be mixed, with the pic currently sitting at 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Bohemian Rhapsody stars Malek as Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in a biopic that follows the British rock quartet's first 15 years. The film credits Bryan Singer as the director, but he famously was fired and replaced by Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) well into the production.
According to The Hollywood Reporter's Sheri Linden, however, the helmer swap didn't seem to affect the final product much. "Picking up the pieces, Fletcher — no stranger to the subject, having been involved in an earlier iteration of producer Graham King's long-gestating biopic — builds upon the work of an ace production team and spirited cast," she writes. "The finished product is energetic, if not always smooth, its affection for Mercury and Queen indisputable even when the drama is undernourished."
In fact, this is Linden's chief criticism of the movie. "Someday another feature about Queen might go deeper. That might or might not make for a better movie. Who says every rock 'n' roll biopic has to wallow in Behind the Music confessionals?," she writes.
However, Linden praises Malek's performance, and also heaps praise on costume designer Julian Day, production designer Aaron Haye and editor John Ottman. Ultimately, she finds the performance scenes highly enjoyable, and in particular the film's re-creation of the 1985 Live Aid concert. "Caught in a landslide of dispiriting headlines, at a moment when connection, curiosity and openheartedness feel like endangered species, the lingering exhilaration of that concert scene is pretty darn magnifico," Linden concludes.
The Guardian's Steve Rose gives the biopic two stars, saying, "Rami Malek's excellent performance aside, it feels less a pioneering musical odyssey than a really good covers band."
Rose praises Malek's performance of the iconic musician as "a feat of impersonation," but notes that "the real problem is how to handle Mercury's off-stage life. On the one hand, there is the story of Mercury's relationship with Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton. They begin as lovers and even become engaged, although it is as clear to her as it is to us that Mercury is bisexual, if not gay."
"A bolder film might have explored the relationship between Mercury's hedonism, his mostly closeted sexuality and his on and off-stage personas in a more nuanced way," Rose continues. "Or at least taken its cue from Mercury's own songbook and played it with some melodramatic abandon. This is a man who responded to his AIDS diagnosis with songs like 'Who Wants to Live Forever?' and 'The Show Must Go On', after all. As it is, this one seeks to tick the biographical boxes and wrap everything up neatly with a redemptive finale. … Bohemian Rhapsody honors Mercury the showman but never really gets to Mercury the person."
USA Today's Brian Truitt similarly gives the film two stars, noting, "There’s a sequence in which the screen is peppered with all the harsh words that critics had back in the day for 'Bohemian Rhapsody' the song, ending with 'perfectly adequate.' That’s the kindest thing one can say about the new Queen biopic and also the most damning."
While Truitt says "Malek nails Mercury’s strutting demeanor and catsuit-clad look," he also adds that "he doesn’t have Mercury’s unmistakable energy and swagger, but then, who does?"
Overall, Truitt compares the film to the real-life legendary band at its core: "As it turns out, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' the song is a sonic masterpiece and Bohemian Rhapsody the movie is just a conventional rock flick, one all too ordinary for a man and a band that exemplified the extraordinary."
Similarly, Indiewire's David Ehrlich praises Malek's performance, but ultimately found that it wasn't enough to save the "royally embarrassing" film. "If not for Rami Malek’s feral posturing as one of rock history’s greatest frontmen, a deep roster of killer songs, and the long shadow of his band’s iconic 1985 performance at Live Aid, this movie could effectively be about any musicians, at any time, rolling through any part of the United States," he writes.
"Bohemian Rhapsody purports to take us behind the music, but the film is so sanitized — so eager to share the credit, and so sheepish to assign the blame — that it often feels like a network TV version of a story that tries to celebrate people for refusing to sand off their edges," Ehrlich continues. Although, he concedes that in all the ways the film fails, "it more than succeeds as a reminder of Queen’s greatness, and as a compelling advertisement for their back catalogue."
Dave Calhoun of Time Out gives the biopic three stars out of five, saying that the film "may well rock you, but it's unlikely to shock you." Like Linden, Calhoun finds the drama in the pic to be unremarkable. "It leans into Mercury’s experience, telling of his relationship with his parents, his early marriage and his coming out as gay. But the film’s perspective feels outside-looking-in on Mercury’s world: Its attitude toward sex and drugs is coy and uncomfortably close to the small-world thinking it claims to dismiss," he writes.
Calhoun, too, found the musical elements of the film to be its high point, however. "Luckily, the music wins out — which is surely what the surviving band prefers: a lively, uncomplicated jukebox movie," he concludes.
Over at The A.V. Club, Jesse Hassenger likens Malek's performance to Mercury's larger-than-life persona that helped lead the band to success, as well as the leeway to get away with "their weirder impulses" of some of their bigger hits. "Malek's imitation does something similar for the movie, allowing the filmmakers to dig into the idiosyncrasies of Queen's creative process," Hassenger writes.
Early trailers made some people concerned that the film wouldn't tap into Mercury's sexuality, but Hassenger says these fears are mostly "unfounded."
"When Mercury tries to tell his longtime romantic partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) that he's bisexual, she gently but firmly dismisses it as a half-truth, and Mercury doesn't really question her perception, though he clearly adores her. It's later implied that the loneliness of life as a sorta-closeted man (even an enormously famous one who performs with flamboyant abandon) leads to Mercury being manipulated by his personal manager and occasional lover Paul Prenter (Allen Leech)," Hassenger explains. "All of these relationships, as well as Mercury's eventual AIDS diagnosis, are compelling in an efficient, boilerplate sort of way — more self-consciously dramatized from the biopic songbook than fully felt or inventively reimagined."
Johnny Oleksinski of the New York Post says, "The best part of the movie is — shocker — hearing Queen's timeless songs," and notes that "the wild-haired actors look the part, but they're given sitcom-grade material."
"What we ultimately wanted from Bohemian Rhapsody was not carbon-copied concerts, but behind-closed-doors insight into a deeply private, complicated, internationally beloved superstar," Oleksinski writes.
Slant's Richard Scott Larson praises Malek, saying, "From emulating Mercury’s outsized affect to his commanding stage presence and singular charm, it's clear that Malek has fully immersed himself in his subject's personal brand of performativity, and the result of the careful approximation of both Mercury’s physicality and playful demeanor is that of bringing the legend — however fleetingly — back to life."
However, Larson notes, "This charitable act of resuscitation for the benefit of Mercury's admirers is something that the film as a whole ultimately fails to accomplish, as Bohemian Rhapsody mistakenly believes that simply trudging through a workmanlike overview of the Queen frontman's life will allow it to arrive at something approaching intimacy."