Review Movie Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Freddie Mercury was the most majestically debauched of all rock stars. A bad-boy diva with a famous overbite that made him look not just sexy but libidinous, he strutted around onstage with the come-hither flamboyance of a leering vampire prince. And, of course, no one in rock history had pipes like his. In his heyday as the lead singer of Queen, during the mid-to-late 1970s, Mercury crooned and wailed, but more than that he soared, like Robert Plant fused with the spirits of Cher and Tina Turner. He was as down-and-dirty as any rock ‘n’ roller, but his melodic glide could lift you to the heavens. Queen’s iconic anthem “We Will Rock You” was written as a call-and-response between the band and its fans, but the way Mercury sang it, with his snaky grandiloquence (“Buddy, you’re a boy, make a big noise playing in the street…”) the song came off as his unholy credo. The message was: He will rock you.
Trailer Movie Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Offstage, Malek nails the star’s fusion of charm and ego with a suavely nervy command. Freddie, born in Zanzibar (as Farrokh Bulsara), spends the early scenes, set in London in 1970, toggling between his proper Parsi family and the nightlife that lures him like a flame. When he learns that Smile, a local band he’s been following, has lost its lead singer, he belts out an impromptu croon in front of the band’s other members, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), just outside their club gig, and as soon as they hear what Freddie can do they hire him.
He already has the scarf-tossing pansexual darling bravado of a post-glam rock star, yet Freddie, in his way, is also a tea-time British gentleman. He becomes the band’s leader, renaming them Queen and getting them to sell their rickety touring van to make enough money for a demo tape, and he possesses an awesome belief in his own talent — right down to the four extra teeth on his upper jaw, which he proudly claims add to his vocal power. Yet the way Malek plays him, there’s a captivating sweetness to Freddie. He treats everyone with the same soft-edged, velvet-voiced regard (at least, until he becomes a drugged-out rock-star prima donna), notably Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the playful and loving lass he falls for and forms a tender domestic union with. When he struggles to keep the relationship going after he discovers, on the road, that his essential attraction is to men, it’s not just because he’s concealing his erotic drive (though that’s part of it). It’s as though he can’t bring himself to break Mary’s heart.
So with a performance as commanding as Rami Malek’s at its center, why isn’t “Bohemian Rhapsody” a better movie? Directed by Bryan Singer, who is now officially credited (after rumors that his name might be taken off the picture due to his failure to show up on set during the final weeks of filming late last year), the movie, despite its electrifying subject, is a conventional, middle-of-the-road, cut-and-dried, play-it-safe, rather fuddy-duddy old-school biopic, a movie that skitters through events instead of sinking into them. And it treats Freddie’s personal life — his sexual-romantic identity, his loneliness, his reckless adventures in gay leather clubs — with kid-gloves reticence so that even if the film isn’t telling major lies, you don’t feel you’re fully touching the real story either. Freddie Mercury was a brazenly sexual person who felt compelled to keep his sexuality hidden, but that’s no excuse for a movie about him to be so painfully polite.
As a director, Singer has always been a big-budget short-order cook, the kind of filmmaker who brings more energy than texture to what he’s doing. “Bohemian Rhapsody” creates a watchable paint-by-numbers ride through the Queen saga, yet it’s rarely the movie it could or should have been. As scripted by Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour,” “The Theory of Everything”), it lacks the cathartic intimacy, the ripping authentic you-are-there excitement of a great rock-world biopic like “Sid and Nancy” or “Get On Up” or “Love & Mercy.” Yet the film’s limitations may not end up mattering all that much since its once-over-lightly quality could prove to be highly commercial (and Malek’s captivating performance is pure awards bait). The movie can work for mainstream audiences as a jukebox musical pegged to a heart-tugging semi-synthetic version of Freddie Mercury’s rise and fall.
In a strange way, it’s Queen’s music, delectable as it is, that’s most underserved by Singer’s one-thing-after-another sketchbook approach. In terms of the Queen songbook, the movie gets a few things wonderfully right, like the Live Aid performance, or the recording — and marketing — of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the one-of-a-kind existential rock-opera mash-up (“Nothing really matters..to me”) that, in 1975, became Queen’s signature six-minute radio masterpiece. The marathon recording session exuberantly evokes the song’s shoot-the-works quality, and there’s an irresistible sequence, built around the in-joke of casting Mike Myers — yes, Wayne Campbell himself — as an EMI executive, in which the members of Queen try, and fail, to convince the label to release “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single. The rest, as they say, is history.
Yet for all the attention it lavishes on its title song, “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t show much interest in how Freddie and Queen came together to carve out their heavy-metal/pop-echo-chamber wall of sound. The first true Queen single, “Killer Queen,” in 1974, becomes the occasion for a squabble between the band members and the producers of “Top of the Pops” about why the band has to lip-sync their performance of it on television. But even if that really happened, who cares? What we miss is how the band came up with “Killer Queen” in the first place — the merging of Mercury’s Tin Pan Alley jauntiness and Brian May’s guitar-god power, backed by the insane multi-tracking of Mercury’s voice into an infinitely mirrored chorus. That’s the invention of the Queen sound, and it’s barely an afterthought in the movie.
As much as that, we miss the formation of what Freddie was onstage. Partly because the film doesn’t want to upstage the Live Aid sequence, there’s hardly a moment where we see Freddie discover who he is as a performer. And here’s why that’s a crucial omission. It wouldn’t be homophobic — in fact, it would be homophobic to deny — that Freddie Mercury brought a spark of gay sensibility to rock ‘n’ roll. He envisioned the concert stage, and the recording studio, as a thunder-rock cabaret, and his vocals projected a newly naked male emotionalism that was stunning in its larger-than-life intensity.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” has a good time showing how Queen conceived a handful of their iconic hits, from the ominous funk of “Another One Bites the Dust” to the gladiatorial surge of “We Are the Champions.” But for most of the film, the awesome expressiveness of Freddie Mercury, the way he used his voice as an enraptured instrument of agony and ecstasy, isn’t front and center. It’s telling that Queen’s 1976 single “Somebody to Love” isn’t featured in the movie (it’s just background music), because not only is it one of their greatest songs, it’s one of Mercury’s most ardently autobiographical. It could have been an epiphany — but the film backs away from it, because it’s backing away from the emotional bravura of what Freddie Mercury was singing.
As “Bohemian Rhapsody” goes on, the band falls apart and comes back together in inevitable, if not always historically accurate, melodramatic ways. The camaraderie among the members of Queen is fun to behold because the film captures what different clothes they were cut from, and the actors fill in their roles — Gwilym Lee is especially good as Brian May, with his Louis XIV mane, virtuoso guitar licks, and jovial straight-arrow crispness. When Freddie reveals to the band, during rehearsals for the Live Aid show, that he has HIV (even though he wasn’t, in fact, diagnosed until two years later), it’s moving, because at that moment the film touches the truth of all great rock bands: that they’re brothers. Freddie’s Live Aid performance gets reconfigured into his secret way of fighting back against the disease. He’s sick, with an ailing throat, but he looks and performs as though he’s in his prime, a show-must-go-on mirage that’s a testament to his rock ‘n’ roll fervor. In a sequence like that, “Bohemian Rhapsody” nails Queen’s majesty. What eludes the film is Freddie Mercury’s mystery.
Pure pleasure permeates Bohemian Rhapsody, a joyful, impish portrait of Freddie Mercury and Queen that doesn’t worry about making the case for these artists’ greatness but does persuasively argue that being in a rock ‘n’ roll band is a blast. Appropriately for a group known for its theatrical, crowd-pleasing tunes, this authorised-by-the-band biopic carries itself lightly, serving up familiar plot points with panache and a sense of humor, while at the same time investing in the story’s emotional through-line, building to a genuinely moving climax. But just as Queen would have been nothing without Mercury’s arresting sexy presence, so too is Bohemian Rhapsody dominated by Rami Malek’s magnetic, frisky and unexpectedly poignant performance as the late lead singer.
A compulsively entertaining breeze
Queen fans ought to be ecstatic when this Fox release hits UK theatres October 24. (Bohemian Rhapsody arrives in the US on November 2.) Nostalgic rockers will be first in line, although those familiar with Malek (best known for the acclaimed TV series Mr. Robot) should also be intrigued. Bohemian Rhapsody has experienced a difficult path to the screen, with different stars and directors signing up and then leaving the project. Then, in the midst of production, director Bryan Singer was replaced by Dexter Fletcher, who will next be making the Elton John biopic Rocketman. (However, Singer is the sole director credited on Bohemian Rhapsody.)
Such behind-the-scenes turmoil often portends disaster, but the finished film shows little sign of that complicated history. Above all, Bohemian Rhapsody is a compulsively entertaining breeze, moving from era to era of the band’s history with ease.
Malek plays Mercury starting in 1970 as he dreams of stardom, teaming up with guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) to form Queen. Over the next 15 years, the band will enjoy the heights of fame but face turmoil once Mercury plots a solo career, which puts Queen’s future in doubt.
Anthony McCarten’s screenplay (from a story by him and Peter Morgan) establishes early on Mercury’s need for reinvention — growing up Farrokh Bulsara, he’s ashamed of his upbringing in Zanzibar — and Malek conveys the awkward, self-conscious young man that remained within Mercury even when Queen was selling out arenas. Bohemian Rhapsody has an unoriginal thematic arc — Mercury needs to learn to accept and love himself — but the filmmakers and their star give that journey resonance, culminating in the band’s powerful reunion at the 1985 Live Aid concert.
It’s inevitable that a certain amount of narrative truncation and rock-star cliché will enter into the mix. (While Queen’s music was often flamboyant and risk-taking, the band’s rise-then-fall trajectory wasn’t unique.) Nevertheless, Bohemian Rhapsody mostly succeeds in rethinking familiar story beats. When the movie stops to show us how a classic track such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” was crafted, the sheer enthusiasm of the filmmaking — alongside the musicians’ thrill of discovery — gives these de rigueur scenes spark. (The film even finds time to work in a decidedly meta joke about that hit song by including a Mike Myers cameo.) In addition, the concert scenes crackle, emphasizing the communal spirit inherent in likeminded artists working together to perform indelible tunes.
Malek sports makeup and fake teeth to capture Mercury’s toothy, pretty countenance, but more importantly, the actor channels the singer’s swaggering presence. And although he confidently demonstrates Mercury’s towering onstage demeanor, he’s just as interested in the man’s sweetness and his camaraderie with his bandmates. As Bohemian Rhapsody explores Mercury’s growing embrace of his homosexuality — and his later battle with AIDS — Malek navigates through the potentially melodramatic material with a winning modesty that keeps this iconic rock star feeling remarkably life-sized.
Not surprisingly, the rest of Queen isn’t as deeply dramatized, although Lee makes for a likable May. As Mary Austin, a supportive woman whom Mercury impulsively marries in his youth, Lucy Boynton has to contend with being relegated to the sidelines, serving as a sympathetic, tough-love force in the film. But Bohemian Rhapsody belongs to Mercury, whose sometimes sad story is counterbalanced by the brassy assurance of his band’s music. At the film’s Live Aid finale, both the sadness and elation are on display, coexisting on Malek’s face and in the urgent electricity of his performance.
Reviewed at Regal Union Square, New York, Oct. 7, 2018. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 135 MIN.
PRODUCTION: A 20th Century Fox release of a 20th Century Fox, New Regency, GK Films, Queen Films production. Producers: Jim Beach, Graham King. Executive producers: Dexter Fletcher, Aaron Milchan, Denis O’Sullivan, Jane Rosenthal.
CREW: Director: Bryan Singer. Screenplay: Anthony McCarten. Camera (color, widescreen): Newton Thomas Sigel. Editor: John Ottman. Music: John Ottman.
CAST: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Dermot Murphy.