Don’t look for Bohemian Rhapsody to provide the definitive take on one of the most iconic rock n roll bands of all time. My familiarity with Queen begins and ends with the Flash Gordon soundtrack, We Are the Champions and We Will Rock You.
Too often the film rushes through moments that warrant more time in order to get to the next highlight reel scene. This isn’t the deep dive Behind the Music look at Queen, but it’s got enough going in its favor to be a winner if not the champion of musical biopics.
For a time it seemed this project was never going to make it to the big screen what with so much behind the scenes controversy. Sacha Baron Cohen was originally slated to star then replaced by Rami Malek. Director Bryan Singer was fired deep into production for clashes with Malek and other crew members with Dexter Fletcher called to complete the film in 16 days. Given all the behind the scenes drama, sticking to a simple, often cliche music biopic was probably the safest way to get Bohemian Rhapsody to theaters.
Anthony McCarten attempts to serve two masters with the script. There’s enough evidence to suggest the film could have easily been either a Freddie Mercury or a Queen biopic. Trying to compromise and tell two full length films results in a highlight reel that mentions all the big moments without any real examination or depth.
Queen members Brian May and Taylor reportedly didn’t want the film to simply be a focus on Mercury, but the band as a whole. Mercury clearly is the draw so McCarten is put in the unenviable task of not shortchanging the band while still providing a spotlight for their lead singer.
There’s been a lot of controversy and complaints about the film not devoting more time to Mercury’s sexuality. But short of orgies and focusing every scene on Mercury hooking up with guys, the film doesn’t shy away from his attraction and relationships with men.
If this were a Mercury standalone film more time could be devoted to delving into subjects like where a young Persian teen developed such a flamboyant fashion sense, his hedonistic rock star lifestyle, his relationships or his musical talent. Or the very complicated nature of his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). As a Queen/Mercury biopic, there’s only so much time to devote to his love life. It’s also an unfair criticism since Mercury didn’t seem to consider himself a trailblazer for queer rights.
In whirlwind fashion we’re introduced to Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), who just talked his way into becoming the new lead singer for his favorite local band Smile. May (Gwilym Lee) and Taylor (Ben Hardy) quickly realize they might have found the missing element and with John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello, GI Joe: Retaliation), the band renames itself Queen.
This is the point where the film kicks into a mad dash to cover all the important events and presumably settle some old scores for the band. Mike Myers has a fun cameo as a record exec who questions the band’s choices. Allen Leech is cast as Paul Prenter, the Yoko Ono lecherous villain who seethes with jealousy whenever his spot is challenged.
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Prenter was Mercury’s manager/lover, but the film spends too much time demonizing him. The Queen influence is heavy here and the scenes spent ensuring audiences viewed Prenter would have been far better spent developing the other characters. Mercury’s courtship and seven year relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) gets significantly shortchanged. Ditto for Mercury’s final years living with HIV/AIDS.
So why with all of those problems is the film worth watching? Easy, Malek delivers one of the year’s most mesmerizing and electrifying performances of the year. Malek seems to capture every bit of Mercury’s cool charisma and swagger. Even when Mercury is at his most obnoxious, Malek manages to give Mercury some measure of likability. Lee, Hardy and Mazzello hold up their end on the scenes as well as Tom Hollander and Aidan Gillen in supporting roles.
Despite the numerous narrative issues with the film, Singer and Fletcher both clearly understand keeping the center of attention on Malek was the only way to go. The big question is can Malek’s performance overshadow some of the film’s clunkier points to earn him very well deserved award nominations?
Malek dazzles during the numerous concert scenes as he shimmies and bops on stage clutching his famed stick microphone. There’s also some fun moments with welcome glimpses of how the band conceived hits like We Will Rock You and Another One Bites the Dust.
The film’s big payoff is a nearly step by step re-enactment of Queen’s performance at Live Aid 1985 at Wembley Stadium. Queen’s set has widely been called rock’s greatest performance. It’s a huge moment and lasts far longer than the typical final act in a music film, but it’s worth every minute. This was the moment in rock and the film does a fantastic job of conveying the epic scope of that historic performance.
Maybe this was the best possible film under Queen’s heavy guidance. It’s flawed and lacks a genuine insight into the band, but it should accomplish one goal of reminding audiences how powerful a force Queen was in the pop culture spectrum.
Bohemian Rhapsody has too many issues to be considered a great film, but there’s something about the experience especially that final 20 minutes that still makes it darned satisfying.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox