Director : Bryan Singer, Dexter Fletcher
Cast : Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 136 mins
Opens : 1 November 2018
Rating : M18
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? The story of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen comes to the big screen in a biopic that’s somewhere in the middle, but perhaps a little closer to the fantasy end of the spectrum.
It is 1970 in England. Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), born Farrokh Bulsara to parents Bomi (Ace Bhatti) and Jer (Meneka Das), is a young singer-songwriter with dreams of stardom. Freddie goes to see the band Smile perform, and after the departure of their lead singer/bassist Tim Staffell (Jack Roth), Freddie petitions guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to join Smile. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), Freddie rebrands the band Queen. When they rent a recording studio to record an album, the fledgling band is discovered and is signed to record label EMI.
So begins a meteoric rise into the stratosphere for Queen, who break into the Billboard charts in the USA and become a worldwide phenomenon. However, there is trouble behind the scenes. Freddie’s fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) quickly realises he is gay, and Freddie’s personal manager and lover Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) drives a wedge between Freddie and the other members of Queen. In 1985, the band is given the chance to perform at the massive benefit concert Live Aid, but with Freddie succumbing to AIDS, it will take everything he has to return to the stage.
Bohemian Rhapsody has had a notoriously rocky journey to the big screen. The film was announced in 2010, with Sacha Baron Cohen attached to the Freddie Mercury role. Following disagreements with May and Taylor, Cohen departed the project. Ben Whishaw was briefly set to replace Cohen, then Dexter Fletcher came onboard to direct, before leaving over creative differences with producer Graham King. Rami Malek was sought to star. Bryan Singer then joined as director, but about two-thirds through production, was let go, reportedly due to absences from the set and clashes with Malek. Fletcher was then brought back to replace Singer.
The resulting film is far from a mess but does leave a bit to be desired. This reviewer got chills multiple times, and the music of Queen does a lot of the heavy lifting. There are many moments in the film that border on saccharine, but against all odds, are effectively emotional. There are also enjoyable bits when Freddie, Brian, Roger and John are all just being silly and goofing about. However, the film feels less like an insightful peek behind the curtain and more like a highlight reel of all the important moments in the band’s history.
It is this feeling of flitting from moment to moment that robs the film of its authenticity, but that also lends it some charm. When Freddie plays the opening bars of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the piano, asking Mary if there’s any potential in the tune, or when Brian stomps his feet and claps to form the start of “We Will Rock You”, or when John spontaneously generates the bassline for “Another One Bites the Dust”, audience members are supposed to nudge their friends in recognition.
There is a bombastic cheesiness to the whole affair that is perhaps fitting for the subject matter, but these moments also firmly make Bohemian Rhapsody feel like the ‘Hollywood version’ of the Queen story. There are times when the film is in danger of feeling like a Saturday Night Live sketch, especially when Mike Myers makes a cameo appearance as (fictional) EMI executive Ray Foster. One can almost picture Blue Öyster Cult waiting outside the studio, with Christopher Walken ready to demand more cowbell.
Rami Malek’s performance is a big part of why the movie ends up as an engaging, affecting work despite its shortcomings. One can sense that Malek is aware of the responsibility of portraying such an iconic and beloved musical icon, but he does not crumble under the weight of said responsibility. He’s more than just a great pretender: there’s the flamboyance, flair and prosthetic teeth, but Malek is careful not to let his portrayal of Freddie slide into caricature, even as other aspects of the movie do. The flashes of vulnerability and lostness behind his eye register as genuine. All the vocals are lip-synced to original recordings of Queen, with Marc Martel providing additional vocals.
Boynton, star of the underrated musical Sing Street, is destined for superstardom. Her portrayal of Mary Austin is heart-rending even though the film doesn’t quite flesh her character out. There’s a sweetness but also a toughness to Boynton’s Mary, such that the audience sympathises with both her and Freddie.
Some questionable wig work aside, Lee, Hardy and Deacon are all quite believable as May, Taylor and Deacon. The real-life May and Taylor are still involved with Queen and had a significant say in what went into this movie. As a result, May especially comes off as a saint. Deacon, who retired from music in 1997, is portrayed as the butt of the joke, but each member has moments when they’re endearing and it’s clear that they all cared for each other even through Freddie’s personal tumult.
Ace Bhatti and Meneka Das make small but impactful appearances as Freddie’s parents Bomi and Jer respectively. Tom Hollander’s Jim Beach is genial and supportive – Beach is a co-producer on the film. Allen Leech’s Paul Prenter grows slimier as the film progresses, while Aaron McCusker brings a warmth and twinkle in the eye to Jim Hutton, Freddie’s boyfriend during his final days.
The film’s re-enactment of the Live Aid concert is a sweeping triumph, capturing the epic scale of the event with a depiction of Queen’s entire set beginning to end. Bohemian Rhapsody will likely be a crowd-pleaser with a middling, bordering on negative critical reception. While its gloss makes it seem like the film skims the surface, the everlasting music produced by the band and strong, committed performances make it not quite the champion, but at the very least the bronze.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars