Queen were more than just one of the most exceptional rock & roll bands of all time. They represented theatricality, larger-than-life soundscapes, taking chances and — as shown in Bohemian Rhapsody, the new movie about the band and lead singer Freddie Mercury — embodied a family, a dysfunctional one sometimes, but a family nonetheless. This is all fairly common stuff to portray for a rock & roll biopic, and though it doesn't break new ground on the genre, it still does what it sets out to do very well. Does it avoid cliché? No, but the best movies about music usually don't. By design, a film that seeks to celebrate true rock star mojo tends to follow a familiar path: It starts with youthful exuberance and the desire to express it creatively, then arcs with some sort of challenge, tragedy or downward spiral, and ends with redemption. This vibrant and at times surreal flashback film does all of the above as it should, so I'm not sure why some critics are demanding more.
Perhaps it's because Freddie Mercury was one of the most daring and unapologetic figures in pop culture — a queer man fronting a straight band with a moniker that winked at this truth, with an utterly wondrous voice and a stage presence that mesmerized to the point of possession. Whether it was in a small '70s nightclub filled with too-cool Brits in beautiful boho-glam threads or a stadium filled with hundreds of thousands of fans from all walks of life clapping above their heads in unison in the '80s, nobody put themselves out there onstage like Freddie. He rocked hard and apparently he lived hard, too. For that to ring true on film, some expect a rawer depiction of his debauchery, snorting lines, gay sex and all. For hard-core Queen fans, however, it's just not necessary.
Despite concerns after Bohemian Rhapsody's first trailer came out that Mercury's homosexuality might be glossed over, it's dealt with straight on, first subtly showing the singer's gazing exchanges with various men while on the road, later in a kissing scene with the band's nefarious handler and, finally, with the man who ended up being his boyfriend in his final years. There's also a pivotal moment between Freddie and his first girlfriend, Mary Austin, that really happened. He gave her an engagement ring but as the band became more successful, and he was away a lot, his true preferences became clear. He finally tells her he's bisexual midway through the film, but she corrects that. "You're gay," she tells him and he doesn't deny it, though the relationship and affection between the two feels tender and real. Austin is still alive and, based on interviews with her over the years, the woman who inspired "Love of My Life" was given her due as an important and grounding part of Freddie's world.
As for his bandmates, they all come off as good chaps, guys whose love for creating music allowed them to not only accept their lead singer's idiosyncrasies but understand that they were part of what made Queen so special. Intra-band arguing is shown, usually for comic relief, but it illuminates the chemistry that created some of Queen's most unforgettable music, from the audacious masterpiece A Night at the Opera to the immersive clap and stomp of "We Will Rock You" to the rhythmic bass-driven "disco" hit "Another One Bites the Dust."
Gwilym Lee captures Brian May in particular astonishingly well, and it's not just his uncanny resemblance to the curly-haired guitarist, it's his go-with-the-flow vibe and obvious reverence for his frontman, something May always seemed to possess. Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor and Joseph Mazzello as John Deacon round out the band impersonations nicely, conveying just the right amount of nerdy excitement as their dreams of fame and fortune start to come true and swelling egos after they actually have. Mostly they help capture the fun, friendship and fearlessness that fueled this phenomenal band, helping them surpass their peers in popularity and output and ultimately evolve into visionaries. No surprise May and Taylor have been heavily involved in this project for years, even having input into the long-buzzed-about Sacha Baron Cohen version of the movie, which fell through, May has said, mostly because of Cohen's fame. Freddie deserved a believable portrayal without even a hint of distraction.
Which brings us to Rami Malek's gorgeous, transcendent performance. You want to smile almost every time he's onscreen. Even with an enhanced jaw via a tooth-filled mouthpiece, he doesn't always look like Freddie Mercury without the signature mirrored aviators (sometimes he looks more like Mick Jagger, others he sort of recalls Z-Man from Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), but he channels Freddie with everything he's got and pulls it off even when the scene itself is a little corny. Don't get me wrong: There are some corny scenes in Bohemian Rhapsody but they're knowingly so; a couple of chuckler scenes with Mike Myers as record exec Ray Foster come to mind (he even makes a subtle ref to Wayne's World's head-banging car scene). Purple Rain, Walk the Line, Sid & Nancy, The Doors and Almost Famous (the latter of which is most similar in tone and authentic feel) also have these kinds of romanticized takes on people who make music and those of us so in awe of them we are moved to tears. Some pull off the magic better than others; Rhapsody is as good as any of the above in doing so.
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As with many biopics, some facts are tweaked and the chronology of events switched up for dramatic effect. Here the opening scene and climax make it all about Live Aid, Bob Geldof's concert/TV telethon, in which Queen famously blew away everyone else on the bill (including Mick Jagger, David Bowie, The Who, and U2 to name a few) with their incredible set. Mercury apparently didn't reveal his AIDS diagnosis to the band until 1989, a full four years after the band's epic Live Aid performance, but in Rhapsody he finds out just before that show and shares the news with bandmates during rehearsals, where he also seems in frail health. This makes the Live Aid show seem even more triumphant, something that might be manipulative if the movie's motivation as adoring tribute wasn't as transparent as it is. May and Taylor OK'd this factual adjustment for a reason — Live Aid was a pinnacle performance that served the climax well — but showing the struggles Freddie dealt with getting onstage and knowing he might not have long to live was a very real thing, no matter the timing. Director Bryan Singer (who was fired before the movie's completion due to sexual harassment charges) really highlights Malek's most nuanced moments, as does Dexter Fletcher, who finished the film in his absence (he gets credit as a producer).
Of course the most memorable of these moments are the musical ones (he's lip-syncing the real Freddie's beauteous vox throughout, and even if his acting had sucked, hearing that voice in a movie theater would be a thrill), but it's more than that. Malek plays the icon with passion and bravado but his confidence has cracks, too — it's layered with what might be insecurity, what definitely manifests as loneliness and what was surely a sense of existential struggle, brought on by a disconnect from his family and immigrant background (his real name was Farrokh Bulsara) and possibly coming to terms with his sexuality even before he became a superstar.
He's so over-the-top in certain scenes that it might come off as caricature, but one suspects Freddie himself was similarly complex. He was flamboyant onstage and off, donning tight, colorful clothing, and punctuating sentences with "dah-ling," while conveying poetry and emotion with his lyrics and blissful singing, even as he maintained an air of hyper-masculine rock god cockiness, the kind that made even straight dudes sing along and shake their bodies with abandon.
As with a concert or favorite record, sometimes it's best not to overthink things but simply let the visceral power take over. That is what made Queen and Freddie Mercury so special and that is why Bohemian Rhapsody will rock you, if you let it.