'Bohemian Rhapsody': Film Review

The full-blast music says it all; the drama's too often on mute.
11/2/2018

Rami Malek stars as Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in a biopic tracing the British rock quartet's first 15 years.

Extra incisors — that's how a young Freddie Mercury, played with magnetism and breathtaking physicality by Rami Malek, explains his four-octave vocal range to prospective bandmates. The moment arrives early in Bohemian Rhapsody, a film that doesn't share Mercury's surfeit of incisors; it has none. Which is not to say this conventional, PG-13 portrait of an unconventional band offers nothing to chew on. Or that it doesn't acknowledge the tale's darker facets. It does, ever so lightly, all the while fervently emphasizing what's sweet and upbeat about it. Someday another feature about Queen might go deeper. That might or might not make for a better movie. Who says every rock 'n' roll biopic has to wallow in Behind the Music confessionals?

The involvement of bandmembers Brian May and Roger Taylor, as consultants and executive music producers, has more than a little to do with the gentle sheen that tamps down unruly narrative possibilities. But their involvement also amps the material's musical authenticity. To the filmmakers' credit, and even though they don't entirely avoid the clunky factoid-itis that often plagues the genre, this is a biopic that favors sensory experience over exposition. It understands what pure, electrifying fun rock 'n' roll can be.

The pop-opera-epic black swan of a 1975 single that gives the feature its name — the likes of which radio had never heard before and hasn't since — is smartly peppered through the narrative: the first songwriterly instincts, beginning with the melody; the exuberant, wacky and seriously inventive recording session; the momentous performance at 1985's Live Aid benefit concert for Ethiopia. That last bit arrives in the bravura sequence that caps the film (and which, remarkably, was the first to be shot). Bryan Singer, who was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) well into the shooting schedule, is the movie's credited director, and his affinity for large-scale spectacle is evident. Picking up the pieces, Fletcher — no stranger to the subject, having been involved in an earlier iteration of producer Graham King's long-gestating biopic — builds upon the work of an ace production team and spirited cast. The finished product is energetic, if not always smooth, its affection for Mercury and Queen indisputable even when the drama is undernourished.

Anthony McCarten's screenplay, from a story by him and Peter Morgan (known for writing about another queen), doesn't so much flow as leap from one aha moment to the next. It begins in 1970 London, where art student Farrokh Bulsara has already changed his given name to Freddie, to the pained disapproval of his traditional Parsi father (Ace Bhatti). (One of the clunkier instances of information posing as dialogue relates the Bulsaras' emigration from Zanzibar when Freddie was a teen.) The further switch to a stage-friendly surname is just a few aha moments away.

Stepping into the void left by a local quartet's departing singer, Freddie is the spark igniting a whole new level of ambition for guitarist May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) — all of whom, unlike Freddie, have a Plan B if the music thing doesn't work out. As to the indefinable, transcendent something known as band chemistry, the movie doesn't quite penetrate the mystery. The lads call themselves misfits playing for misfits, which hardly captures what makes them unique among rock acts. But when Bohemian Rhapsody zeros in on their musical give-and-take, it's clear that four creative spirits have joined forces.

When it clicks, the humor, both scripted and improvised, effortlessly underscores the characters' bond. The actors are convincing in the musical sequences, which rely on Queen recordings (and sometimes use Malek's voice in the mix). At crucial points in the offstage story, though, the performances of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello are reduced to reaction shots. Given the easy camaraderie and charged artistic mission that these performers conjure, there are too many wasted dramatic opportunities. As a result, the group's tensions and rifts don't register with the intended force, and Mercury's growing imperiousness never truly feels like a threat to the band's cohesion.

That's no fault of Malek's. Taking on a daunting task, he more than delivers. Though he's only an inch shorter than Mercury was, he generally comes across as smaller and more delicate, and with his distinctive, enormous eyes, he'll never be a ringer for the frontman. But, outfitted with the famous overbite and an exquisite array of costumes by Julian Day, and moving with a ferocious, muscular elegance, Malek is transformed.

Alluded to but left offscreen is Mercury's tabloid-fodder walk on the wild side, which Sacha Baron Cohen, earlier cast in the project, has said he'd hoped to explore. Malek's devouring gaze suggests Mercury's sexual appetites but also an aching innocence. Barely out of his 20s when Great Britain decriminalized homosexuality, the singer isn't eager to attach a label to his way of life. He's not interested in being a symbol or a spokesman.

And McCarten's screenplay is more concerned with Mercury's profound love of performing, and the identify he forges onstage. It's all there in the way the newbie rocker wrestles with the mic stand, awkwardly at first and then taming it like a beast. From there, his confidence soars along with the band's fame, his look morphing from haute hippie to harlequin catsuit to the stylized machismo of the gay leather scene. In the group's ever-changing tonsorial parade, the even-tempered May's Baroque-composer curls are the only constant.

The outstanding contributions of makeup and hair designer Jan Sewell are as essential as Day's fashions and Aaron Haye's rich production design. And fashion is a vital component of Mercury's biography: He and fiancee Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, of Sing Street) fall for each other in Biba, the trendsetting boutique where she works, and where she tenderly encourages his inner diva.

Their love story is the most complicated and best developed relationship in the film, leaving no doubt as to why, well after truck-stop trysts have awakened Freddie's attraction to men, Mary remains his dearest and most steadfast friend. They remain neighbors, too — his lamplight signals to her a desperately hopeful riff on Gatsby's green light.

But many scenes of the sad rich boy, alone on the satin sheets in his Kensington mansion, can't shake off the whiff of cliché. That goes too for the over-the-top bacchanalia that Mercury throws, with the movie trying way too hard, much like its host-with-the-most protagonist, to be shocking — without tipping into R-rated territory. After the treacheries of Mercury's personal assistant (Allen Leech) have unfolded in an overly obvious way, an unexpected lesson in self-worth from a kind acquaintance (Aaron McCusker) is a welcome page in this rock-star saga.

The music-biz elements of that saga strike a lighter note, as you might expect when Mike Myers is tapped to play an EMI exec, a quarter-century after Wayne's World put this movie's title song back on the charts. A nearly unrecognizable Myers is the hit-hungry money guy who once championed the group and now just doesn't get the genre-bending, six-minute "Bo Rhap," as a take-no-prisoners Freddie, bouncing about the office like a frog, calls their new song. The scene is a strained bit of burlesque-meets-manifesto, somewhat redeemed by its ultimate punchline, many scenes later.

Bo Rhap the movie is on its surest footing in the music sequences. The experiments in the studio are joyous, the concerts properly loud, and John Ottman's editing connects them fluidly, as when a bass-line doodle segues without a moment's breath from the studio to Madison Square Garden.

Call it pandering or love, but Queen built at least one song, "We Will Rock You," around the idea of audience participation, and the movie is, most memorably, a celebration of what's shared, whether the band is warbling about Beelzebub and the inscrutable "Galileo figaro magnifico," or thousands of ticket holders are chanting an anthem's chorus of one-syllable words. The celebration reaches a thrilling crescendo in the final sequence, a powerful rendition of the band's galvanizing — and money-raising — Live Aid set, which has been called the greatest live rock performance of all time. Swooping from a rapturous overhead shot of Wembley Stadium (Haye re-created the defunct venue's stage, to scale, at an airfield) to the intimate onstage interplay of the musicians, out to the rapt crowd and back again, Newton Thomas Sigel's dynamic camerawork is a high-voltage language of communion.

The rough edges of Freddie Mercury's story might be smoothed over in this telling, the indulgences and debauchery sugarcoated. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? It's a little bit of both. But, caught in a landslide of dispiriting headlines, at a moment when connection, curiosity and openheartedness feel like endangered species, the lingering exhilaration of that concert scene is pretty darn magnifico.

Production companies: New Regency, GK Films
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers
Director: Bryan Singer
Story by: Anthony McCarten, Peter Morgan
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Producers: Graham King, Jim Beach
Executive producers: Arnon Milchan, Dennis O'Sullivan, Justin Haythe, Dexter Fletcher, Jane Rosenthal
Director of photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production designer: Aaron Haye
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editor: John Ottman
Composer: John Ottman
Casting director: Susie Figgis

Rated PG-13, 134 minutes