The Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody isn't necessarily a bad movie. The screenplay has a nice, classical Hollywood shape. Rami Malek is a legit Oscar contender for his lead performance. The simulations of live performance are passable at the least. The climactic concert at Live Aid packs an emotional punch.
But little of that really matters. For Bohemian Rhapsody is a music biopic to its core, which means it hits every. last. beat that we've come to expect, even predict, in the genre.
These movies will keep coming; the Elton John portrait Rocketman is set to launch in May. These movies make money. They've also reached a creative dead end, excepting the fine art and entertainment value of self-parody.
You can take notes at Bohemian Rhapsody, or you can keep score. Hero rebels against family? Yep. Band experiences creative breakthrough? Roger that. Rise to fame and fortune captured through glitzy concert montage? Of course. Hero descends into drugs and despair? Book it.
The template has been grist for parody since at least 2007, when Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story milked the rock biopic's paint-by-numbers formula for laughs. This was right after Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for playing Ray Charles in Ray, and Reese Witherspoon did the same for playing June Carter in Walk the Line. (Know who really likes rock biopics? The Academy.)
Since then we've had James Brown (Get On Up), The Beach Boys (Love & Mercy), N.W.A. (Straight Outta Compton), Biggie Smalls (Notorious) and Nina Simone (Nina), among others. Some of these are actually good movies, which doesn't stop them from bleeding together into a monolithic biopic mush.
The rock biopic formula is so set in its ways that it absorbs all potential deviations. It absorbed hip-hop. In Bohemian Rhapsody it absorbs issues of sexual identity (rather tepidly). It takes the potentially interesting and squeezes it into a cinematic widget.
The pattern is so established that it's easy to freak out when a music biopic tries something different. Todd Haynes split the many-sided Bob Dylan into multiple characters and actors in the 2007 postmodern experiment I'm Not There. Don Cheadle, realizing that the arc of Miles Davis' life was too massive for conventional treatment, turned 2015's Miles Ahead into a madcap caper, with the mercurial trumpet god leading a music journalist (Ewan McGregor) on an After Hours-like wild goose chase.
John Ridley, getting no cooperation from the Jimi Hendrix estate, created 2013's Jimi: All Is by My Side without any of Hendrix's original music, casting hip-hop artist André Benjamin in a story confined to the ax master's brief but formative time in London.
These films left viewers scratching their heads; they are not without narrative problems. But they're different, square pegs in the round hole that the music biopic calls home. The Hendrix example is of particular interest. When you don't need an artist or his/her estate to sign off on a movie, you're free to do whatever you want.
Look at the credits on Bohemian Rhapsody and you'll find surviving members of Queen listed as producers. This kind of participation is not uncommon. It ensures that no one is going to get too creative with the subject's legacy. It's a reminder that the music biopic is hagiographic by nature. And it's a big reason why the genre, taken as a whole, remains deathly dull.