By Kim Hughes
You will not see a more perfect and imperfect rock and roll biopic than Bohemian Rhapsody, which does many things extremely well, other things sort of average, and one thing flawlessly: capturing the immense charisma and panache of Queen singer Freddie Mercury. Jamie Foxx’s full-body inhabitation of Ray Charles just got some competition at the top.
Mr. Robot actor Rami Malek is brilliant, exactly mimicking Mercury’s mischievously outlandish swagger yet maintaining a looseness that allows the character to scan as three-dimensional. Even Queen fans who remember the real Freddie won’t believe their eyes, especially after re-watching concert footage on YouTube, which Malek doubtless did, and plenty of it. His performance is the film’s engine. Fans will be similarly heartened by the amount of play Mercury’s relationship with confidante Mary Austin receives in the final cut. More on that later.
Malek’s magnificence — and it’s hard now to recall that Sacha Baron Cohen was originally attached to this role — is also part of what makes Bohemian Rhapsody’s weaker moments land with a thud; the contrast is so jarring. And never more so than in the scenes leading up to the band’s triumphant (there is no other word for it) 1985 performance at Live Aid, when Mercury takes his new and miraculously located beau home to meet his borderline homophobic family en route to the concert.
First he finds a needle in a haystack, then he makes peace with his strait-laced old man, all before casually dazzling 40 percent of the world's population at the time with a heart-stopping performance. Uh huh.
That hokum undermines the film’s authenticity as does a deeply undercover Mike Myers, who marshals a stereotypical tin-eared record executive who simply cannot digest the brilliance that stands before him in his office, in the shape of four musicians, one of whom — we are reminded at multiple junctures — is also an astrophysicist as well as a superb guitarist.
Ah well, producing your own biopic, as Brian May does here with Queen drummer Roger Taylor, has its upsides. Still, one wishes Myers’ synergistic pop culture connection both to Queen and specifically to the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” (see the lynchpin car scene in Wayne’s World) was leveraged more thoughtfully or perhaps with less feature-obscuring makeup.
The scenes bookending the above-mentioned are much, much better. Bohemiam Rhapsody, buoyed as it is by a fantastic soundtrack (duh), soars on universally spot-on casting: May, played by Gwilym Lee, is nailed right down to his clogs, bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) down to his ill-advised perm.
The writing and recording scenes, meanwhile, unspool like a copy of MOJO Magazine sprung to life. There’s May chronicling the genesis of (and reasoning behind) the foot-stomping, hand-clapping opening of “We Will Rock You.” There’s Mercury in the studio bullying Taylor into spitting out the breathless falsetto spiking the film’s title song.
The performance scenes, particularly the showpiece Live Aid concert, broadcast the excitement — and inherent fashion crimes — of eighties-era Wembley Stadium at full blast. (In subsequent interviews, Malek has confirmed this iconic scene of that iconic performance was the first thing that was shot with the surviving members of Queen watching, further underscoring just how much he nailed it).
Also riveting is a press conference scene where Mercury, hammered by the media on every subject except the new music the band is there to discuss, must deflect like a veteran politician. The scene is an avatar of sorts for the horrendous treatment soon to come Mercury’s way when the UK tabloid press got word of his illness, detailing his decline via front-page photos of an ever-more-gaunt Mercury darting for cover.
That ugly episode in Mercury’s life — and yes, he denied having AIDS until the very end but it was his illness and his life at stake — is not directly addressed in Bohemian Rhapsody, but advance concern that Queen would simply gloss over Mercury’s sickness in the film prove unfounded. One wonders if his actual revelation of his HIV status to his bandmates was as cavalier as portrayed here but no fault on May or Taylor for wanting to accentuate the positive in Mercury’s extraordinary life and career. We know the end was painful and sad.
That same goodwill shepherds the large role given to Mercury lover-cum-BFF Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who was central to the singer’s life until the very end, a point clearly made in the film. Mercury’s comportment towards Austin — writing songs about her, willing her his estate — neatly exemplifies the legendary kindness and fealty those in his orbit proclaimed so often and so lovingly.
Actually, that’s the real engine behind Bohemian Rhapsody: not just Mercury’s musical talent, which was obvious and abundant, but his palpable humanity which never waned, even when excess and finally, illness threatened to topple all that he was.
Bohemian Rhapsody. Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, and Mike Myers. Opens wide November 2.