UK Release Date: 24th October 2018
Runtime: 134 minutes
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Lucy Boynton, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aidan Gillen
Synopsis: The story of how Farrokh Bulsara became Freddie Mercury – frontman of Queen and one of the most famous rock performers of all time.
The backstage story of Bohemian Rhapsody is a fascinating one. Way back in 2010, Sacha Baron Cohen was announced to be playing Freddie Mercury in a biopic, only to drop out a few years later after disagreements with surviving Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor. The voice of Paddington, Ben Whishaw, was also briefly attached but it wasn’t until 2016 that the project got off the ground, with Mr Robot leading man Rami Malek in the lead role. They weren’t out of the woods then, though, as director Bryan Singer was sacked halfway through the production for various concerning reasons and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher, who shepherded the movie over the line. And now it has arrived, banking hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. But what shape is it in?
It turns out that the answer is a complicated one. Bohemian Rhapsody is a film that gets an awful lot wrong and missteps on some key aspects of the protagonist’s life, while making several dramatic licence changes to the Queen timeline that are, at best, clunky and, at worst, actively distasteful. With that said, though, it’s a thoroughly entertaining whistlestop tour through the highlights of Queen’s rise to fame and the charisma that led Mercury to icon status.
Malek, thankfully, rises to the challenge of playing Freddie Mercury with aplomb and precision. It’s a well-studied performance that, after a shaky start, eventually embraces every inch of Mercury’s unique physicality and flamboyance. Anyone with any doubts about Malek will have had them dispelled by the climactic scene at the 1985 Live Aid concert, in which the actor is a firecracker of physical charisma, executing a perfect recreation of one of the most memorable live rock performances in music history. That scene, in particular, ends the movie on a blistering high note that certainly had me weeping as I was tapping my foot.
But there’s a lot of movie to get through before that finale comes around. Much of that movie is devoted to Queen and their rise to fame, which is assured and enjoyable. Freddie’s bandmates are a mostly likeable bunch, with Gwilym Lee terrific and absolutely uncanny as Brian May and Joseph Mazzello likeably dorky as the quiet John Deacon. Ben Hardy fares slightly worse as drummer Roger Taylor, but the script’s characterisation of him as a sort of Top Gear level ‘total lad’ might be more of a problem than Hardy’s performance. Lucy Boynton, who was so excellent in Sing Street, also shines as Mary Austin, with whom Mercury had a very complex, turbulent relationship.
Indeed, it’s through the relationship between Mercury and Austin that the film is most able to communicate Mercury’s sexuality. The scene in which he sits down with Mary and comes out to her is powerful and beautifully acted. It’s the changing face of their relationship that appears to be the closest thing Bohemian Rhapsody has to a window into who Mercury was as a person. There’s certainly none of that to the movie’s second half, which largely plays his queerness in the background or as tabloid gossip, while framing it in a way that seems to hint (falsely) that it was the reason for him splitting from the group to do solo work.
It’s in this second half that the movie stumbles and stutters its way through the period of the story that isn’t as simply celebratory of an epochal rock act. Rhapsody knows exactly what it’s doing when it’s recounting the recording of the operatic section of the title song – “my nuts feel like they’re in my chest,” says Taylor – or recreating the video for ‘I Want to Break Free’, but it’s much less comfortable when it’s depicting hedonistic parties and a weird press conference that segues into a sort of psychedelic nightmare.
As the Live Aid concert draws nearer, it’s framed as the event that brought Queen together – in reality they’d been touring again for several years beforehand – and crunched together with Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis that wouldn’t actually come until a couple of years after the show. It comes to a head in a cringeworthy scene in which Mercury admits his diagnosis to the band and they respond with an array of clichés. Fortunately, this gives way to Live Aid – a bravura crescendo of a finale that ends the film on a note of tear-stained euphoria, enough to forget the rather troubling events that preceded it.
Bohemian Rhapsody, for all of its troubles, emerges as a fun music biopic that works often enough to make its failings palatable. Ultimately, it’s a borderline hagiographic portrayal of a rock icon, precision-calibrated to celebrate a man who, for many viewers, is synonymous with some of the best rock anthems ever written, as well as some seriously weird stuff that few other big stadium acts could get away with. The central role would be a huge ask for any actor, but Rami Malek proves strong enough to shoulder the burden of a legend.
Pop or Poop?
Such is the complexity of Freddie Mercury that no biopic could adequately please the various interests. A warts-and-all portrait would inevitably neglect the euphoria of his music, while a more crowd-pleasing portrait is doomed to ignore the controversy that made him such a special figure. Bohemian Rhapsody falls into the latter camp and keeps the toes tapping enough to drown out the cries that, actually, this probably isn’t a great movie.
There’s also a scene in which Mike Myers cameos to do a really on-the-nose reference to Wayne’s World. But we won’t talk about that. It’s truly hideous.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.