There’s a poignant and hilarious scene about a third of the way through Bohemian Rhapsody when pull-quotes from early reviews of Queen's titular 1975 single flash across a black screen. Melody Maker called “Bohemian Rhapsody” a “superficially impressive pastiche of incongruous musical styles.” Other publications were much crueler.
This scene is central to Bohemian Rhapsody’s thesis. (And it speaks to the futility of music criticism.) A toothy, self-conscious kid of Parsi descent who struggled with his sexuality into adulthood, Freddie Mercury—born Farrokh Bulsara—was rock’s ultimate and original underdog. The world never fully understood him, and if Bohemian Rhapsody is to be believed, Mercury never fully understood himself, either.
When Bohemian Rhapsody focuses on Freddie Mercury—as it damn well should—it soars. Mr. Robot's Rami Malek nails both Mercury’s flamboyant stage persona and his off-stage idiosyncrasies, which is no small accomplishment.
When Bohemian Rhapsody focuses on Freddie Mercury—as it damn well should—it soars.
The film also tackles Mercury’s sexuality and family—two of the juiciest and most delicate aspects of the late musician’s personal life—with a surprising amount of respect and nuance. Early trailers for Bohemian Rhapsody disingenuously placed Mercury’s relationship with girlfriend-turned-BFF Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) in a wholly heterosexual light. The film, thankfully, does not commit that same transgression. Mercury’s coming out to Austin halfway through the film—a scene based on a real exchange—is one of the film's most cathartic moments.
But the movie's greatest moment occurs earlier, when, at a birthday party, Mercury’s silently conservative family pass his baby photos around the table. Mortified, he leaves the table and walks over to a piano, proudly rechristening himself “Freddie Mercury.” It’s a moving encapsulation of the singer’s glorious self-reinvention.
But when director Bryan Singer zooms out to include the rest of Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody falls victim to the clichés that encumber every rock doc and biopic. Some of this is inevitable: Band origin stories are boring to watch because they’re inherently boring. No amount of unique personalities can make a meeting with a record label executive seem fun.
Still, you can’t help but feel like some of this “filler content”—such as a scene where Queen guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) teaches the band, sans Mercury, the stomp-clap pattern for “We Will Rock You”—was included at the behest of the surviving band members. This is further hinted at during a scene where a pill-addled Mercury gives his obligatory “You’d be nothing without me!” declaration to the band. Mercury comes crawling back, of course, and the subtext is that Mercury was just a single part of a much larger machine. But even if the band believes this, it’s a ludicrous proposition. Without Freddie Mercury, there would be no Queen, and there certainly wouldn’t be a Bohemian Rhapsody.