If you’re a fan of Queen and Freddie Mercury, you will very likely enjoy Bohemian Rhapsody. The movie is a celebration of the band and its music. You’ll be reminded of just how much you loved songs like “Fat-Bottomed Girls,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “Radio Ga Ga,” along with deeper cuts such as “Love of My Life.”
Whether or not the film is a fitting tribute to Mercury will depend on your view. Director Bryan Singer (who was fired from the production yet is still credited) and writer Anthony McCarten take a safe approach to the singer’s personal life, largely settling for allusions to Mercury’s homosexuality, drug use and partying. Much like Mercury did publicly, the movie keeps that away from the audience.
However, Bohemian Rhapsody does a fine job of portraying Freddie Mercury, the rock star. Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) has all of the legendary frontman’s stage moves and swagger down. Mercury commanded the stage, punching, gyrating, and thrusting with the beats from bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor. The rest of Queen effectively faded into the background because the eye was always drawn to Mercury’s energy and charisma.
Off-stage, Malek’s performance isn’t quite as impressive, but that’s because the script gives him trite material to work with. Mercury’s interactions with his disapproving father, his eventual wife Mary, record executives (and an inside joke that is such a stretch), assistant and lover Paul Prenter, and, of course, his bandmates all feel predictable, as if you’ve seen them in another movie. Nothing feels particularly original there, even if those scenes can be dramatically satisfying because they’re familiar.
It doesn’t help that during the first quarter of the film, it seems like Malek is struggling with the false teeth that he’s wearing to play Mercury. Yes, Mercury’s front teeth and overbite were prominent, a signature feature. And the script explains that he had four extra incisors, which he said gave him extra vocal range. Maybe trying to hide those teeth was as difficult for Mercury in real life. But Malek trying to talk with that mouthpiece is a bit distracting at first.
As Mercury emerges as a rock superstar, however, Malek loses himself in the role. The costume design is wonderful, helping the actor to perfectly capture Mercury’s on-stage presence and ability to command an audience. For that matter, Gwilym Lee looks just like guitarist Brian May, thanks in large part to May’s enormous hair that he hasn’t changed in probably 40 years. (If you see Lee without that wig, you won’t recognize him.)
Attention to detail is definitely a strength of the production, which might be best demonstrated by the re-enactment of Queen’s memorable 1985 performance at Live Aid in London. It sure as hell looks like the band is playing in front of 72,000 at Wembley Stadium, a crowd that would’ve awed many musicians but inspired Queen to give arguably its best live performances. If you watch video of the actual concert on YouTube, you’ll be impressed by how closely the movie resembles the real thing.
Learning how “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” were created and recorded make for many fun moments in the film, in addition to demonstrating what an amazing skill it is to write a great song. Some more exploration into what inspired such creativity would have been welcome, but maybe that’s the sort of thing that just can’t be explained by those gifted enough to enjoy those talents.
Unfortunately, the script isn’t as faithful to timelines and actual events. While the Live Aid concert serves as an excellent framing device for the story, certain developments during Mercury’s life and the band’s history didn’t happen exactly as they’re portrayed in the film. If you don’t know that, it’s not going to bother you. But if you do feel compelled to look up the real story after seeing the movie, you might feel a bit manipulated by how real events were shuffled around to create more drama.
Someday, maybe we’ll get a truer portrait of Mercury, one that isn’t afraid to delve into his lifestyle and the politics associated with homosexuality at the time. That’s reportedly the movie Sacha Baron Cohen was interested in making when he was preparing to play Mercury, only to clash with May and Taylor, who wanted a less controversial telling of the Queen story.
While I wouldn’t call myself a diehard Queen fan — I don’t have every album, nor did I have posters on my wall, wear t-shirts or anything like that — I certainly enjoyed their music while growing up. I loved their rock anthems, especially in relation to sporting events. They provided themes to several movie soundtracks in the 80s, notably for Flash Gordon, which may have been when Queen — and Captain Tightpants, Freddie Mercury — first got my attention.
But the anticipation of Bohemian Rhapsody and the nostalgia it invoked has sent me back to so many of their songs (spending too much money on Amazon) and the memories I have of that music. That is almost surely what people will love about this movie, even if it’s not actually very good in terms of storytelling and sticking to the facts. But maybe the mythology is enough.