Whether or not you enjoy Bohemian Rhapsody, the biography film of the band Queen, will likely depend on what kind of movie you’re in the mood to see when you go into the theater.
If your interest is in learning more about the band’s history—and in particular, the story of late singer Freddie Mercury—a great deal of that is present, including the high and low points of their time together before Mercury’s untimely passing from an AIDS-related illness in 1991; the band members’ process in the studio; and the rise to fame that was fueled by becoming one of the planet’s greatest live acts. If you’re simply interested in a re-creation of familiar moments in Queen’s timeline, culminating in their epic set at 1985’s Live Aid and complete with a veritable jukebox of studio hits and live recordings, all expertly lip-synched by star Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) as Mercury, this might check many boxes for you as well.
Having seen a couple of expertly produced documentaries on Mercury over the years, I was perhaps hyper-aware of how much is left out of his story in Bohemian Rhapsody, which is ironic since the film spends most of its running time focused on him, leaving band members Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), Roger Deacon (Joseph Mazzello—yes, the little boy from the original Jurassic Park), and Brian May (Gwilym Lee) pretty much non-existent as human beings until they met Mercury after their original lead singer quits and Mercury just happens to be around. The film touches only slightly on Mercury being a self-hating, Tanzanian-born young man named Farrokh Bulsara who eventually used his exotic looks to full effect on stage. He was both embarrassed about his teeth (he claimed to have four extra in his mouth), but he also prided himself on the fact that having them opened up the space in his mouth and allowed for more vocal range as a singer.
Early in the film, Mercury is deeply and sincerely in love with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton from Sing Street) and the two eventually get married just as the band’s popularity skyrockets. According to the film, the singer was in deep denial about his attraction to men for quite some time, leading us to believe he was a self-hating gay man, which I’m not sure is entirely accurate. While there’s no reason for Bohemian Rhapsody to get explicit in its telling of the band’s story, there’s an uncomfortable way that the director Bryan Singer (who was kicked off the film near the end of production, leaving Dexter Fletcher—who gets an executive producer credit—to finish shooting) deals with anything remotely involving Mercury’s gay lifestyle once he does admit the truth to himself and others.
After years of the band members bonding over making innovative music, concept albums and touring the world, Mercury’s coming out as gay leads to a succession of bad choices and turns him into a self-destructive bastard. He surrounds himself with selfish advisers, including his lover Paul Prenter (Allen Leech from “Downton Abbey”), who leads him down a path of drugs, decadence, and even convinces him that Mercury doesn’t need Queen to succeed.
But there are enjoyable moments in Bohemian Rhapsody, including a sequence with EMI record executive Ray Foster (a composite character, by the way), who hears the film’s epic title song and scoffs at its length and the fact that it’s not the kind of song that kids will bob their heads to while listening. The fact that Mike Myers (of Wayne’s World fame) plays Foster is one of the great inside jokes of all time. The team that works with Queen is quite supportive and honest, and while they are still a unit, things go quite well. Tom Hollander and Aidan Gillen are the key players that guide the band through its early years and fight to make them superstars within just a couple of years. The moment when Mercury finally comes to his senses while making a nightmare solo album and pulls the band back together in time for Live Aid is as much a testament to Mercury discovering humility as it is to the band’s team maneuvering the members into alignment in the nick of time. It should be mentioned that Dermot Murphy’s portrayal of Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof is both remarkable and hilarious.
With a workable screenplay from Anthony McCarten, Bohemian Rhapsody gets a great deal right, but they’re the things you’d expect it to get right—the costumes, the wigs, the production design, and a central performance by Malek that raises the material to levels that the film sometimes doesn’t earn. There’s no denying that Malek brings an energy and authenticity to Mercury that makes it easy to forget you aren’t looking at the real deal. The film culminates with most of Queen’s Live Aid performance, which was as much a behind-the-scenes triumph for the band as it was a rousing success in front of the crowd. (If the film is to be believed, the band’s set was also what finally got the charity’s phone lines ringing as well.) It’s the perfect way to end the movie—leaning into its strengths in the hopes of washing away its shortcomings.
There are songs and moments in Queen’s history that are simply left out; that would happen even in the best version of this movie. The film isn’t meant to be a greatest hits package. Instead, it zeroes in on some of the band’s most innovative tracks and the conversations and production tricks that went into their creation. But Bohemian Rhapsody also showcases Queen’s legacy as a force of nature when live onstage.
After hearing rumors that the movie wouldn’t get into Mercury’s life as a gay man or his HIV diagnosis, I was pleasantly surprised that both are dealt with quite openly, as is Mercury’s decision not to be a poster boy for the disease. He was a musician to the end, and that’s what he wanted to do until he couldn’t any longer. Thankfully, the film does give us that version of Mercury. There are a great number of problems with Bohemian Rhapsody, but the passion for and behind the band is front and center, and that occasionally makes it a great deal of fun.
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