Is this the real life? Or just a fantasy. Will it rock you? Or it will drive you ga ga. I promise I’ll stop with the song lyric references. But unfortunately,
Bohemian Rhapsody is a film that exists as a gushing love letter to Freddie
Mercury and Queen, and not much else.
Elevated by an electric performance by Rami Malek, who captures Mercury’s
dazzling essence without falling into a farcical impression, a thumping
soundtrack that will have you rushing for that well-worn copy of Queen’s
Greatest Hits, and a finale that’s rousing and tear-inducing, there’s still
hefty entertainment to be found from Bohemian Rhapsody. But you can’t help but
wonder what could have been from something that delved a little deeper.
All but ignoring the early life of Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara in
Zanzibar and sent to boarding school in India, Bohemian Rhapsody jumps straight
to 1970s London. It’s here we find 24-year-old art student Freddie Bulsara (Malek)
working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, dreaming of a more glamorous
life. He’s changed his given name (the Mercury surname comes later), much to the
chagrin of his traditional Parsi father, Bomi (Ace Bhatti), and never stays home
at night, much to the worry of his adoring mother, Jer (Meneka Das).
An encounter with astrophysics student Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and dental student
Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) of the struggling band Smile is just the chance Freddie
needs. As luck would have it, the pair are in desperate need of a new lead
singer. When Freddie informs the lads he’s their man, he’s instantly laughed
off, due to “those teeth,” aka the now-infamous overbite that became Freddie’s
trademark. But a hasty display of his impressive pipes quickly silences their
dismissal. Throw in a new bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and Queen is
born. Yes, this movie moves that quickly.
Continuing this film’s frustrating rapid pace, Queen almost immediately grabs
the attention of EMI, signs a contract with the label, and are placed under the
management of John Reid (Aidan Gillen), who was also managing Elton John, at the
time. From here, the singles, albums, and tours flow, getting progressively more
popular and more adventurous, with Queen soon becoming the biggest band in the
world. There are ups. There are downs. And, of course, there’s Queen’s glorious
(and show-stealing) Live Aid 1985 performance at Wembley Stadium to wrap it all
May and Taylor serve as consultants and “executive music producers” (whatever
that means) on this project, and that may provide the answer as to why Bohemian
Rhapsody seems far too concerned with presenting an awfully sanitized version of
the band’s history. There’s a blunt refusal to dig too deeply. Darker moments
are hinted at, but maddeningly never fully explored. There’s more to this story.
There must be. Sadly, you’ll likely learn more about Queen and Freddie Mercury
from a quick Google search than watching this film. If you do take a journey to
Queen’s Wikipedia page, you’ll find this film is littered with inaccuracies and
twists in its storyline, all done for lazy melodramatic effect.
Before their big performance at Wembley, Freddie breaks the news of his AIDS
diagnosis to the band, leading to a moment of brotherly love and support from
his compatriots. It never happened. By all accounts, Mercury was not diagnosed
with the disease until two years after Live Aid. And even then, the illness was
kept hidden from the band until just months before his untimely death. The Live
Aid concert is also portrayed as the catalyst for the band’s touching reunion,
after Mercury fell out with the boys after leaving to pursue his own career and
produce two solo albums. That also never happened. His first solo album was only
released the same year as Live Aid and the band never truly “broke up,” but were
merely on hiatus.
Is it too picky to deride a narrative film for taking liberties with the truth?
Perhaps, but it screams laziness from a screenwriter wanting to create something
from nothing. Naturally, all biographical films are never 100% accurate. But
these facts are well noted and well known. Playing with them for dramatic
theatrics seems redundant by a film that ignores plenty of hefty true-life drama
in favor of carefully crafted mistruths. If you’re none the wiser, these
moments clearly won’t stand out. But for anyone with a passing knowledge of
Mercury and the band, it’s impossible to overlook.
Thankfully, Bohemian Rhapsody is quite earnest in its portrayal of Mercury’s
sexuality. It never shies away from the fact Freddie Mercury was a gay man.
However, everything related to his life off-stage is frustratingly presented in
a decidedly PG-13 fashion. But it’s all fleetingly presented and in a
pointlessly innocent way. It simply cannot be called an authentic portrayal of
someone so known for his sexual prowess. It’s true Freddie never wanted to be
the poster boy for homosexuality, keeping his sexuality hidden from the public
as long as he possibly could. But there’s no reason a biopic should be as
That’s not to suggest this needed to be an all-out orgy of sex, drugs, and rock
n roll. It’s just Freddie’s struggles with his sexuality are what make him such
a fascinating character study. He was someone so outlandishly suggestive
on-stage that it’s entirely intriguing how and why he would become so completely
introverted off-stage. There are glimpses of Freddie’s sadness, as he lays alone
on his bed in his lavish mansion, desperately longing for somebody to love
(sorry, last one I promise). Yet the screenplay fails to explore this
melancholia with any semblance of contemplation, leaving us with far more
questions than answers.
There’s a haphazardly handled attempt at portraying one of Freddie’s fleeting
romances with Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), one of the band’s early managers, who,
if you believe the film, was Queen’s equivalent of Yoko Ono. Written as a
scheming, devious, and jealous diva, Prenter borders on a cartoonish villain, as
he plots to lead Freddie away from the band, for reasons entirely unknown. The
film isn’t concerned with exploring what motivated this apparent scoundrel to
all but destroy the successful quartet. Again, this is all wildly exaggerated
for the film, given the band never truly parted ways.
But, if all you came for is the music (and that’s highly likely), you’re
ultimately handed a pseudo jukebox musical that rivals anything either Mamma Mia
film dished up. Covering Queen’s ridiculously fabulous back catalogue, Bohemian
Rhapsody serves up all the big hitters, wisely delivered by Freddie himself.
While Joaquin Phoenix was able to impressively recreate Johnny Cash’s vocals in
Walk the Line (2005), Malek thankfully isn’t given the impossible task of doing the
same with Mercury. Is it a cheat? Sure, but the end result is rather seamless,
thanks to Malek’s admirable lip-synching skills.
Malek really is the saving grace of Bohemian Rhapsody, in a performance that
hopefully still captures the attention of awards season, even though it’s clear
the film itself will not. This is the part he was clearly always meant to play,
even if his physical appearance hardly resembles Mercury. But with some fake
teeth (which are terribly distracting at first, but you soon acclimatize), that
infamous moustache, and an extravagant array of costumes by Julian Day, the
transformation becomes pleasingly uncanny. But it’s Mercury’s flamboyant energy
and intoxicating charm that Malek truly captures, gifting us an earnest
performance that rarely ventures into caricature. He disappears into this role,
managing to find the tortured, lonely soul hidden by Mercury’s exuberant
personality. When Malek is on-stage, the results are electric, with the actor
recreating Mercury’s dazzling stage persona with pitch-perfect accuracy. It’s a
performance that’s worth the price of admission alone, ultimately rescuing the
film from being a total misstep.
All will likely be forgiven by most after the exhilarating and moving finale
featuring an almost-exact (and 15-minute long) recreation of Queen’s legendary
performance at Live Aid. While the digital effects work of the 72,000-strong
crowd within Wembley Stadium leaves a lot to be desired, the action on-stage is
really quite extraordinary. Clad in that iconic outfit of a white singlet, tight
blue jeans, and a black leather armband, Malek inhabits Mercury’s every strut
and movement. Freddie always came alive on-stage, and Malek’s performance
reaches a new level here as well. Some may bemoan the film concluding here,
rather than Mercury’s untimely death. But director Bryan Singer clearly wanted
Bohemian Rhapsody to go out on a high.
If nothing else, Bohemian Rhapsody will remind you of the magic of Queen and the
greatness of Freddie Mercury. But Malek’s sublime performance and the smashing
soundtrack of Queen’s greatest hits are ultimately masking a shallow, generic,
by-the-numbers film that consistently plays it far too safe. Singer wants this
film to stand as a glowing tribute piece rather than a rumination of the men
behind the music. That will sit perfectly fine with some, but will likely
frustrate just as many. Music gods often retain an air of mystery around them.
For now, Freddie Mercury’s mystery remains mostly intact.