Even before Bohemian Rhapsody begins, the 20th Century Fox logo appears on the screen and the familiar trumpet fanfare morphs into an electric guitar with Queen-like flourishes. It’s kind of like the logo is telling you to get ready to rock, there will be head-banging. When is the last time a non-comic book movie logo got cheers before a film?
Bohemian Rhapsody chronicles the rise of the band Queen, and appropriately focuses on lead singer Freddie Mercury. But this isn’t a cradle-to-grave biography. It covers 15 years of Queen’s rise and comeback and it’s as much a concert as it is a biopic — especially while showcasing the band’s performance at Live Aid, a global charity concert in 1985 that raised money to fight hunger in Ethiopia.
In the screening I attended, people were mouthing lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody — like you do — and clapping their hands along to “Radio GaGa.” There are so many Queen songs featured in the film that the movie is worth seeing just to hear its music over theater speakers. I can’t remember another music biopic with as much music from the artist as this.
The other reason to see Bohemian Rhapsody is for Rami Malek’s bravura performance as Freddie Mercury. Like most beloved stars, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to play Mercury. He was truly unique, with his high cheekbones, endless jawline and, of course, those teeth. Perhaps the closest in physical resemblance is Sacha Baron Cohen, who was at one point lined up to play Mercury in an earlier version of this film.
But looking like Mercury is one thing, being able to perform like him is quite another. And perhaps that’s why it took 27 years after his death for a film to be made about him. Enter Malek, who plays. He doesn’t look exactly like Mercury, but embodies him head to toe, from the small glance he gives a male fan in a crowded hallway to the heartbreak he experiences. His performance carries the film and is filled with heart even in some of Mercury’s darker moments.
While onstage, Malek is outlandish, flirty and mesmerizing as he swaggers and preens with every ounce of confidence of the real Mercury. His angular stance and press of vocals beam out of his spandex-covered frame like a bright light to the heavens. And that’s just as Mercury on stage.
Malek is adept at portraying both the rock star and the person. In the scenes between Mercury and Mary Austin, his closest friend and partner (played by Lucy Boynton), you feel he’s found his true love. You see a vulnerable side to Mercury, driven by a search for his identity as much as by his ambitions. (Hey, iconic rock stars are just like us.)
We all have something uniquely exceptional about us and without Mary, as the film shows, Mercury might not have fully explored his talent or come to terms with his sexuality. Boynton brings a contemporary perspective to Mary that allows her to be both a supportive muse, partner and friend who has enough emotional strength to show Mercury who he really is, even as her heart is broken by his philandering.
But the other part of Freddie Mercury is as the lead singer of Queen, as the public saw him most often. Legendary guitarist Brian May is wonderfully played by Gwilym Lee under a mop of curls, drummer Roger Taylor is played by Ben Hardy, and Joe Mazzello plays bass guitarist John Deacon.
Some of my favorite scenes are when the four of them are recording a song. You see as much of the foursome’s creativity as you do their bickering. One of the better sequences is the band recording “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a studio on a farm. There’s a moment while Mercury writes the lyrics to the song that is part act of creation and part divine inspiration. It’s just him alone at a piano in a farmhouse and his emotions are raw and on full display. You realize he is one of those fortunate people who’s absolutely naturally talented.
The story has obvious parallels to other music biopics, maybe because so many famous musicians’ lives follow the same path: be a nobody; find love and success; struggle with stardom, sexual adventures, drugs; lose yourself to fame; grow apart from those close to you; and make a comeback. Also, as is the case here, there’s the tragic ending.
Mercury died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991. It was a “where were you when” moment only heightened by the fact that at that time, awareness and understanding of HIV/AIDS was still in its infancy. Just the day before his death, the very private performer had shared publicly that he had the disease.
The sense of Mercury’s tragic end creeps up on you from the first frame of the film, a silent close-up on his eyes. It’s not clear what the context is here, but there’s enough ambiguity that makes you fear the worst. The knowledge of Mercury’s illness and death is a like another character in the film, whose presence is barely seen but often left me with the feeling that dread is around the corner.
But as that short silent beginning ends, “Somebody to Love” kicks in and we glimpse Mercury walking past all his cats feasting from fancy bowls to leave his mansion for that famous Live Aid concert. Mercury is in his full-on Castro clone look with short, slicked hair and large, bushy mustache.
These two moments are the public and private side of Mercury that the film alternates between with satisfaction.
Despite languishing in development limbo for years, with various attached stars and directors (and not without controversy), the film that came out of such a messy creative process is phenomenal as one that celebrates the band and its music. It doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by offscreen in-fighting, and director Dexter Fletcher (credited as Executive Producer) deserves praise for his work in the final weeks of filming.
The film is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (frequent collaborator Bryan Singer who is credited as the director). He as authentically captures the band performing as he does the tiny mundane moments between shows. I love the way he frames Malek on and off stage, as it adds as much believability to him being Mercury as the costumes and makeup.
And as for the wardrobe, throughout the film I heard various audience members/numerous viewers say, “Oh, I want that shirt” or “I need those shoes.” Malek’s clothes as Mercury are necessarily, gloriously over the top. It’s a master class in rock star costume design.
Mike Meyers is nearly unrecognizable in his makeup as EMI executive Ray Foster. His presence in the film is wonderfully cheeky especially since Wayne’s World was one of the reasons Bohemian Rhapsody had a resurgence.
Bohemian Rhapsody, much like the 2015 biopic Straight Outta Compton did for NWA, will introduce Queen to a new audience while easily elevating the band’s rock god status even higher. Even under all that hype, the film is about four outsiders who made a bunch of fantastic music.
As Mercury says: “We’re four misfits who don’t belong together playing for the other misfits.”
Bohemian Rhapsody opens Oct. 24 in the UK, Nov. 1 in Australia, and Nov. 2 in the US.
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