Queen frontman Freddie Mercury is unquestionably one of the most sensational stage presences in music history, if not the most charismatic. His backstory, too, is fascinating, as is the legitimate scientific research that’s been done about his alleged four-octave voice range.
Telling the tale of such a storied figure is problematic right from the start: with such immense talent and a complicated life, how do you make a movie about him (and the band) that thoroughly captures every aspect? Combined with the tumultuous production and multiple re-castings of Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody seemed almost destined to fail. Somehow, despite the film’s frustrating tendency to tie everything up into a nice little bow, it deftly avoids train wreck territory, though not without a few low points here and there.
What do you mean?
Something feels off while the story is being told. We meet Mercury (Rami Malek) — at that point still Farrokh Bulsara — right before he joins up with the rest of the band. Watching longingly from the back of a local club, the future superstar approaches the band after their set and discovers that the lead singer just quit. He seizes the opportunity and does an impromptu audition in the parking lot that’s enough to seal the deal. With that, he’s their new frontman and the band becomes Queen.
That’s just one example of Bohemian Rhapsody‘s main fault, which continues throughout the movie: it’s too quick, too perfect. Mercury, an imperfect, complex man — haunted by his demons — is not a PG-13 movie. He lived hard and struggled in silence, one of the first to traverse such rough terrain in the public eye. We see the surface of that conflict but not much else.
How is Rami Malek’s performance?
There’s no doubt about it: Malek throws himself into this role, and it’s apparent that he’s trying his absolute best to channel Mercury’s fire. For the most part, he succeeds, at times completely blending into the part (It’s pretty much a guaranteed Oscar nod for Malek). The onstage set pieces are spot-on and energetic, to the point where I felt compelled to listen to Queen for days after seeing the movie. In those scenes, Malek may as well be Mercury — the movements and lyric delivery are almost exact to real life.
What ruins an otherwise fine performance is Malek’s mouth prosthetic, which is continually distracting. While Mercury’s imperfect teeth are well-known, the prosthetics department went overboard with this particular set. It juts out whenever Malek delivers a line, and he constantly runs his tongue over it and attempts to bring his upper lip down over top. Whether it’s discomfort or an attempt to mimic Mercury, it is glaringly omnipresent. At times, it’s almost like a Halloween costume gone wrong.
What about the story itself?
Again, Mercury’s story is fascinating and very hard to encapsulate in two hours. There are so many facets left unexplored and others just glazed over. The main storyline focuses (obviously) on Mercury’s ascent to fame, and a lot of time is spent on one of the most fundamental relationships in his life: his romance and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). In the movie, Queen becomes a family, and that’s a point really brought home — for Mercury, the group most likely became a supportive surrogate family, since he was wayward and rootless from a very young age.
I’ve heard the movie tries to bury Mercury’s homosexuality. Is this true?
Prior to the movie’s release, there was much to-do about the movie “ignoring” Mercury’s homosexuality. This is not true. While it doesn’t necessarily delve into the nitty-gritty of his gayness, it also doesn’t shy away. We see Malek-as-Mercury contemplating entering a men’s bathroom for sex, we see two men kiss, we see the press relentlessly ask him about it and we see some cryptic snapshots of Mercury’s legendary parties (Note that there’s no real in-depth analysis of it, either).
One area that could’ve used more exposition is Mercury’s death from HIV-AIDS complications. But again, this is a PG-13 movie not meant to be an exploration of social studies but rather an ABC biopic about his achievements and life. As a colleague said recently, Mercury’s music and the story of Queen have nothing to do with his sexuality or his AIDS affliction, and that’s not inaccurate. But to many gay fans, Mercury is a beacon, a light in the darkness, a man who struggled at the end of his life to surmount a then-mysterious illness that impacted millions of people.
This is a point that could be debated in an entirely separate article, and generally, Bohemian Rhapsody should be lauded for doing more than just mentioning it in a caption before the credits, which many modern movies would do.
So what’s the bottom line?
Bohemian Rhapsody will not be all things for all people. For the music fans, it is a fine biopic that’ll have you reminiscing about Queen’s excellence. Toes will tap, and you’ll be left in wonderment at Mercury’s raw, singular talent. For those looking for a deeper, more comprehensive look at the man, this isn’t it, but you’ll get a surface brush of Mercury’s life and rise to the top.
Bohemian Rhapsody is now playing in theatres across Canada.
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