From the outset, capturing the drama, spirit and sheer charisma of Freddie Mercury on screen in the form of a bio-pic simulacrum was going to be a fool’s errand. He was too big, too sly, too magnetic and too unique to be imitated. Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody seems to know this fact, using the most precious of Freddie’s gifts, his voice, throughout the film. Add in Rami Malek’s committed performance and you have a satisfying, if not sublime, take on the life of this rock icon.
The project wasn’t always going to be so toothless (which is ironic given Mercury’s alleged extra incisors). Sacha Baron Cohen seemed like he’d be an inspired muse who could echo the performative aspects of Freddie Mercury, including his suave nature that came with more than a bit of bite. Cohen also has a hell of a voice, and maybe some division between the original tracks and the on-screen meanderings wouldn’t constantly remind us that Malek’s no Mercury.
Bohemian Rhapsody is indeed rhapsodic, a full-on celebration of the King of Queen’s rise from luggage schlepper to arena rock superstar. It’s a journey with the requisite bumps along the road, visiting the loves of his life in all their forms (musical, physical), touching slightly on his obstinance and hubris, but never coming close to showing Mercury the interminable asshole. He’s always redeemable even when being a schmuck, and the film never delves low enough to grant us the cathartic highs.
The fingerprints of the other band members are all over the film, and while I don’t begrudge their involvement, it results in a chastened look at the debauchery of 1970s rock. We might not need Gaspar Noé-levels of hedonistic storytelling, but something along those lines might better express the adventurousness and limit-breaking spirit of that period.
Singer’s direction is at best pedestrian, at worst boring. He checks off the requisite boxes without really emphasizing the drama. Sweeping shots of Wembley Stadium are well-executed, but these god’s-eye views, while spectacular, don’t draw us into the storyline so much as make us feel like we’re privy to the goings-on of a theatrical retelling rather than getting true insight into this most mercurial of performers.
Lucy Boynton does her best to inject her role as Mercury’s love Mary Austin with enough spirit, but she’s little more than a diversion along the way. Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor plays a comically randy drummer convincingly, and the oft-obverlooked John Deacon is well realized by Joseph Mazzello. The most convincing casting is actually Gwilym Lee as guitarist Brian May. The RSC thespian nails the physical and sardonic nature of the man.
Some stunt-casting involving Mike Myers provides one of the film’s most winking metatextual nods, while the likes of Aidan Gillen and Tom Hollander show up smiley-faced and warm. Allen Leech has a difficult job as the vilified personal manager that leads Mercury astray. While his well-coifed moustache doesn’t lend to twirling, his two-dimensional baddie role is the film’s most clunky and superficial.
A special shout-out must go to Dermot Murphy, who in a small role as Bob Geldof convincingly plays the Boomtown singer wrangling the Live Aid madness. Whoever crafted his perfectly coifed mange deserves an award simply for nailing that 1985 look.
All of this acting, camerawork, and narrative is of course moot to the real star of the show. Mercury’s voice, often captured free from the instrumentation with which it’s normally mixed, truly elevates the work. As a simple showcase for the man’s gifted vocals, Bohemian Rhapsody provides cause for celebration, allowing us to hear the siren-like call of this most magnificent of vocalists in a theatrical environment with booming speakers. There are plenty of thrilling parts in this movie, but they’re all centered around hearing Freddie and his brothers in Queen tear the roof off one venue or another, culminating in the sublime Live Aid set that gets its rightful due as one of the finest, ballsiest, most supreme performances in rock.
While Bohemian Rhapsody may not be the final word on Mr. Mercury, it’s still a fine celebration of the man’s life and music, as well as a decent contribution to the lore of Queen. It serves as a kind of authorized biography that doesn’t completely feel like the work of publicists and agents. This is a safe, almost chaste look at a man who was anything but, yet for many will be a touchstone from which they’ll be able to fully delve into the majesty of Queen in all its phases and forms.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a fine fandango, if lacking in narrative thunderbolts and lightning. That may only matter to me and those desperate for generations to come to embrace this most magnificent of talents. Freddie Mercury’s real life was bigger than any film can contain, and maybe this generalist take will allow others the courage to truly explore the man and his contradictions. For now, at least, we have the music to keep us more than rapt, and remind us of the voice that was silenced far too soon.