Film Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

A triumph. Deftly tweaking the tropes of rock biopics, this drama of singer Freddie Mercury and British hitmakers Queen dazzlingly captures an era, a man and the universal quest for identity.
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Freddie Mercury was contradiction embodied. A gay man who became an arena-rock icon for American bros and British lager-louts whose minds would have been blown if only they'd known, the Queen frontman half-denied his sexuality, indulging in years of gay Bacchanalia while feeling all his life that he was spiritually married to his youthful sweetheart. The son of an immigrant Parsi family in London, he became a non-ethnic enigma with a nondenominational name. "You can't get anywhere pretending to be something you're not," his father tells him in the biographical drama Bohemian Rhapsody. His reply: "I'm exactly the person I was always meant to be."

That overriding conceit helps elevate this drama of Mercury and the 1970s and ’80s mega-band Queen above the rags-to-riches formula of many rock biographies, even the good ones. Writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour), director Bryan Singer and announced but DGA-uncredited replacement director Dexter Fletcher wisely condensed that story to concentrate less on history than on the personal price of success and what it does to our self-conception.

Opening with minutiae of musical gear being set up before a show, extreme closeups of backstage details setting a tone both exotic and workaday prosaic, the movie hits the major beats of Mercury's rise without digressive detail. All biopics condense, obviously, but Bohemian Rhapsody does it with a more canny understanding than most—including a tongue-in-cheek take on the trope of city names flying at you to indicate the young touring band's implacable momentum. The filmmakers also make great use of crosscutting to give a visceral sense of the concerts and of Queen's greatest hits without performance footage stopping the plot dead.

Rami Malek, living up to advance notices, will justly earn accolades for his portrayal of Mercury. Yet the less-lauded Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor, Joseph Mazzello as bassist John Deacon and especially the amazing Gwilym Lee as lead guitarist Brian May—Queen's head and heart, to Mercury's soul—create full-bodied figures who shine in their own right. Aidan Gillen plays their manager, John Reid, while an unrecognizable Mike Myers portrays fictional record executive Ray Foster—who, yes, predictably declares that Queen's nearly six-minute magnum opus "Bohemian Rhapsody" will sink the group (leading to a fictional and somewhat rote how-dare-you-besmirch-our-artistic-integrity walkout), but Myers makes Foster's voice-of-experience indignation feel genuine and not just villainy by The Man.

Mercury's ego eventually gets the better of him—foreshadowed by shots throughout the film in which Malek is often standing apart from the other three—and even soulmate Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) can barely reach him through the Iago-like influence of handler turned "manager" Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). The band ultimately forgave and forgot Mercury's fall from grace in order to perform together at the all-star benefit concert Live Aid in 1985—a scene the movie recreates in a brilliantly, dazzlingly, audaciously rough approximation of real time. You'd think, on paper, how could this possibly work? An unbroken performance scene by actors who are not the band and aren't even a tribute band, but just actors largely miming? And yet it's spellbinding. When Mercury sings the lyrics of the title song's doomed protagonist, having just told the band of his terminal AIDS, it is chilling to hear "Too late, my time has come / Sends shivers down my spine / Body's aching all the time… I don't want to die / I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all…" Mercury actually wasn't diagnosed with AIDS till 1987, as his partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) later revealed, but hey, emotionally it works.

I have to say this—how could I not? And I think Freddie would smile at my doing so: Bohemian Rhapsody? It will, it will rock you.