by Alan Yudman
I walked out of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY on a high. Like the high you have after seeing a great concert. The performer energized the crowd and you leave feeling giddy and singing the songs. I was enthusiastic and ready to be effusive with praise.
Then after a while I remembered it wasn’t a concert, it was a movie. And that’s when I started jotting down my notes (a peek inside my reviewing process) and realized the film has a few problems.
There is no doubt at all that Bryan Singer captures the energy and glorious weirdness of Freddy Mercury. And that is completely because of a tour de force performance by Rami Malek. He crawls inside Freddy Mercury and disappears into the role. Malek captures not only the flamboyance and the artistic vision, he also gives us the insecurity, doubt and loneliness. Mercury was complicated. His public persona was outrageous and bravura. But in private he was tortured and tormented. Mercury wanted the rock and roll lifestyle, the fame and the fortune. But he came from immigrant parents who just wanted to blend in and do good. He was confused about his own sexuality, loving his longtime friend Mary Austin, but tempted by men. Malek gives it all to the audience. The strutting performer and the insecure man-child are given the same weight. This is a performance that should get Malek an Oscar nomination, if not the gold statue itself. Wouldn’t Freddy have loved that.
The rest of the cast is very good. They found three actors to play Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) who seemed to be nearly doubles for the other members of Queen. Lucy Boynton captures the conflict and longing Mary must have felt being the love of Freddy’s life. Allen Leech (Tom Branson from Downton Abbey) is wonderful as Paul Prenter, Freddy’s longtime partner and band manager (or assistant manager, it’s not clear) who is a manipulative prick. The always great Tom Hollander and Aidan Gillen play the band’s lawyer and manager (again, not clear).
It really is the acting that elevates BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. The story is compelling, but the telling has several problems. The movie races through the band’s early years until they get to the making of A NIght at the Opera. Then it slows down to show the making of that record and the fight with the record company over the first single’s release. There is a scene where they meet with a record company executive who doesn’t want to release the 6 minute opus, Bohemian Rhapsody, as the first single. That executive is played by Mike Myers, so when he trashes the song it got a bunch of laughs in the theater (because he played Wayne in Wayne’s World which lionizes the song). But it is a stunt and it takes you out of the scene. And Myers’ beard is some weird, glued on-looking mess. Singer decides to use on screen text to tell us where and when we are, but that only points out the time warp jumps through the band’s history.
About that history. Man did they take license with the facts. Rolling Stone fact checks the movie and there’s a bunch of problems. Click the link to see just some. I also found one they didn’t mention. On the band’s first tour of the United States, the movie shows Queen playing Fat Bottomed Girls. I know that was on the 1978 album Jazz, because that’s the first Queen album I ever bought. I was willing to accept they may have played a version of the song before 1975. But checking Wikipedia Fat Bottomed Girls wasn’t performed until after Jazz was released. That took me out of the movie too.
Singer and screenwriter Anthony McCarten do a great job weaving the themes of the music in with the story. They also seem to get the band dynamic right.. the love, the tension, the arguing. I heard before seeing it that Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis was “straight-washed”. I don’t think that’s the case. It’s dealt with, but it’s not really the focus of the movie. Though you see how his behavior lead to what you know will be his eventual diagnosis. The movie builds to Queen’s historic performance at 1985’s Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium. I saw it then and I’ve seen it on YouTube since. Malek nails it. It is note for note perfect.
If you are looking for a historical telling of Queen, well this isn’t that movie. This is more of a biopic about Freddy Mercury and using the band as a framework to tell his compelling and tragic story. For that, the music, and Malek’s groundbreaking performance BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is worth every dollar you pay to see it.