Movie Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

A watered down look at Freddie Mercury's amazing music and life

Bohemian Rhapsody
Directed by Bryan Singer (and Dexter Fletcher)
With Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

As the years go by, the late Freddie Mercury just seems to get more popular. Bohemian Rhapsody focuses on his musical career and personal life, with other members of the band Queen largely going undeveloped.

Bohemian Rhapsody is more like a hagiography, the biography of a saint, than a biopic about a rock star. It tracks his rise, downfall and redemption in a fairly formulaic manner. Many of his fans regard him and his legacy in almost religious terms, so it is an approach that works surprisingly well. Fans of the band have been much more pleased with the film than critics.

The film also works as an annotated greatest hits album, with the music shining through, albeit in truncated versions, and copious amounts of trivia about the songs being told.

The soundtrack album has the original Queen hits, while the movie reportedly uses a mix with several voices replicating Mercury’s.

For Queen fans, the film will likely be great fun. But it plays it very safe.

Mercury helped to bring the growing HIV crisis into the mainstream, at a time when the subject was unpopular. The film also touches on LGBT themes and drug abuse, but tries perhaps even too hard to avoid any sense of sleazy tabloid exploitation.

Rami Malek, known for the series Mr. Robot and films like the Night at the Museum trilogy, steps into the role of Freddie Mercury. He does put a lot of energy into the role, taking the name Mercury to heart and making a Mercurial figure who shows up late often has unpredictable moods. Freddie Mercury, of course, was a stage name. His original one was Farrokh Bulsara.

Malek resembles Mercury from some angles and has prosthetic teeth to try to match Mercury’s overbite. But he isn’t an exact double. He is a bit slighter of build, which reduces his stage presence a bit, and even though he closely mimics the stage moves he doesn’t have the same charisma. Nobody does though, so this is about as good as it will get.

Originally, when the film was announced a decade ago, Sacha Baron Cohen was pegged for the lead role but dropped out before production started. He would have much more looked the part, but apparently had a different idea about how the character should be portrayed.

The early years of the band make some of the film’s best scenes, as Freddie convinces members of the band Smile to let him be their new singer. Mercury, still using his birth name, starts to develop his glam image and stage moves, and starts a romantic relationship with a shop assistant named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton).

But after guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) are introduced we find out almost nothing about them, their eventual wives and children.

Mostly they are in the studio working on their big hit songs and having mild arguments over musical issues and which songs should be promoted. While Mercury changes his look several times, the band members look the exact same for the 15 years or so the film covers.

The early part of the film climaxes in the recording of the classic song “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the conflicts around its release.

Lots of changes are made to the film to beef up the drama. Mercury’s relationship with his tradition-oriented parents, who practice Zoroastrianism, is exaggerated, as he had virtually no contact with them after he began his music career.

Mercury’s HIV diagnosis is pushed up a few years, as by most accounts he found out in 1987 and the film only tracks events up to 1985.

For the film, Mercury knowing his HIV status gives him new motivation to get his career back on track and his life back in order.

The film presents Queen at the Live Aid concert as the band’s highest moment. It is brilliantly done, but Queen went on for six more years and released three more albums, not counting Made in Heaven, completed four years after Mercury’s death.

The film was directed by Bryan Singer, though he has fired before filming was finished and Dexter Fletcher took over.

Singer was an odd choice, as most of his career is action films like X-Men and its sequels, plus Superman Returns. Dexter Fletcher’s work, including a musical called Sunshine on Leith, makes him a more obvious choice. The end result though, is a seamless film that despite its reliance on formulas can win over the audience.

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