Directed by Bryan Singer
Reviewed by Alina Oswald
Many years ago, as a kid, I discovered the music of Queen, while listening to my dad’s LP, A Night at the Opera, but it wasn’t until years later that I became entranced by it, in particular by the one-of-a-kind voice of its lead singer, Freddie Mercury. I believe that it is precisely Mercury’s unmistakable voice that helps Queen’s music create “a kind of magic” for many of us.
A few years ago I heard that a Freddie Mercury biopic was in the making. This November, the long-awaited Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody…finally happened. For this particular movie, I even set foot in a movie theater—a surprisingly pleasant experience in itself.
Bohemian Rhapsody attempts to recreate the kind of Queen music that made many of us lifelong fans, as well as to introduce younger generations to a Queen level of music artistry. In the process, the movie captures only a snapshot of Freddie Mercury’s life, without revealing much that we didn’t know about the legendary singer.
The opening scene shows Freddie Mercury getting ready for the 1985 Live Aid concert (a dual-venue benefit concert taking place at Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philly), and then stepping out on stage, about to perform; the last scene captures an almost full rendition of that real-life, memorable Queen performance. In between, the actual story takes place, spanning over a decade and a half, from the seventies to the mid-eighties. Bohemian Rhapsody introduces us to a young Farrokh Bulsara working at London’s Heathrow Airport, and also to his family. It takes us along on his frequent nightclub escapades, where he discovers a band called Smile. As its lead singer leaves the band, Bulsara takes his place, and then changes its name to Queen and his own name to Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek, known for his roles in Mr. Robot, Night at the Museum, Larry Crowne). We also meet Mary, who becomes “the love of [his] life,” as well as the other Queen members—Brian May, played by Gwilym Lee (The Tourist), Roger Taylor (Ben Herdy, X-Men: Apocalypse), and John Deacon, played by Joseph Mazzello (Jurassic Park). As we follow them on their journey to stardom and to the 1985 Live Aid concert, we also get to glance behind the scenes, and take a good, candid look at the making of some of the most quintessential songs we’ve ever known, such as “We Are the Champions,” “I’m in Love with My Car,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie, blends real life with a bit of fantasy in the way it brings to life an already familiar portrait of Freddie Mercury. (There’s at least one deviation from real life, in particular regarding the year when it’s believed that Queen’s frontman was diagnosed with AIDS.) That said, Rami Malek’s performance and remarkable transformation into the iconic Freddie Mercury should be applauded, as should others’ performances, in particular Gwilym Lee’s rendition of a very close-to-real-life young Brian May.
Mercury’s sexuality also comes into play in the movie, and yet, the overall play-it-safe portrayal of Mercury—when it comes to his sexuality, AIDS diagnosis and otherwise—lacks many of the attributes defining the legend we’ve come to love. To reiterate, AIDS is mentioned in the movie, more as a secondary character. Also mentioned is Mercury’s own explanation of his decision to not come out about his HIV status—“I don’t have time to be the AIDS poster boy. I’m gonna be what I was born to be, a performer.” As his fans, I guess we have to respect that.
Overall, Bohemian Rhapsody offers phenomenal music and yet a very shallow depth-of-field lens through which we get to look at the music legend, as well as at Queen, the band. The movie leaves us longing for much more, in particular for a kind of depth, a deeper exploration of the story and characters. Bohemian Rhapsody does end on a high note, though, one that only Freddie’s voice would be able to reach. The intention is, perhaps, to give us hope, because, after all, the Show Must Go On.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.