At first I thought, Oh no, a movie about Queen — or, really, about Freddie Mercury — that is suitable for tweens? How could a 12A/PG-13 movie possibly do justice to his story? And, indeed, there’s a bit early on in Bohemian Rhapsody, a montage of performances from the band’s first big tours, during which they were performing their first big hits... and the lyrics of “Fat-Bottomed Girls” are muted, the cheers and screams of fans just so happening to swell over certain phrases in the song.
Friends, I groaned. I was primed for disappointment. But that feeling never returned, and Bohemian Rhapsody quickly won me over. There is enormous empathy for Mercury here, and the film never has to mute his complexity to earn that. But even more so, though, it’s the power of Queen’s music that filled me up: the rousing good cheer of it, its sheer rock ’n’ roll joy. There’s a scene midfilm in which Mercury is describing to a record-company executive his vision of the album that will become their A Night at the Opera, and he cheekily invokes “the unbridled joy of musical theater.” That’s what Bohemian Rhapsody is. It’s a Mamma Mia for Queen. It’s this year’s The Greatest Showman. And just as there is still very much a need for — and very much room for — a dark, gritty drama about P.T. Barnum, there is still no reason why we cannot also eventually get a dark, gritty drama about Freddie Mercury. I would like to see both such movies. But right now, the world is dark and gritty enough. Some unbridled joy is very welcome.
Not that Rhapsody avoids the more complicated matters of Mercury’s life, from the racism he faced as the child of Middle Eastern immigrants in London in the 1970s, to his homosexuality at a time when that was less accepted than it is now, to his later drug use and HIV diagnosis at what was perhaps the height of the hysteria about AIDS. As Mercury, Rami Malek brings warmth and humor and a down-to-earth humanity to a figure who had already become larger than life before his death in 1991 (a few years after the film ends) and whose legend has only grown since. There may be plenty big and bold about this movie, but Malek’s Mercury is anything but a caricature. His is a portrait of a lonely misfit that avoids all the clichés of what Hollywood biopics in particular have long since rendered a familiar type. Malek is not singing as Mercury, which isn’t surprising: Mercury had an incredible voice with a literally awesome range, and it would almost impossible to find an actor who could portray him who could also pull off the singing. (I doubt we could find anyone, actor or not, who could sound like Mercury again. Apparently the voices of several singers had to be combined here to replicate Mercury’s voice.) But Malek brings so much passion in the musical sequences that you’d never know it.
Rather unexpectedly, there’s a sweet, gentle comedy zinging through ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’
And it is the music that makes Rhapsody such a wonderful, enrapturing treat. By the time the film culminates in Queen’s now-legendary performance at the charity concert Live Aid in July 1985, I was so primed for it that I broke down into blubbering sobs of bittersweet joy, for the music — damn, every single one of their songs is amazing — and for the loss of Mercury, and all the songs we never got.
Actor Michael Myers has said in the past that Queen loved what he did with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the song, in Wayne’s World — that now-iconic headbanging-in-the-car scene — because Myers was the first one to appreciate that the song was meant to be funny. Rather unexpectedly, a sweet, gentle comedy like Myers’s zings through Rhapsody the movie... most deliciously in how Myers himself appears as the EMI exec who pooh-poohs the idea of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That might be a tad obvious, but it’s a luscious cinematic full-circle. (The sequence in which the band records the song is also a hoot.)
This isn’t a perfect film. The production troubles that led to original director Bryan Singer being fired, with the film finished by Dexter Fletcher, aren’t entirely invisible; there’s a bumpy roughness in spots, though those may also be issues with the script, by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan. Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman with whom Mercury shared an unusual romance and who was his muse, gets short shrift... though that’s, alas, not unusual for the women in men’s stories. More surprising is how minimal the roles of the other members of Queen — bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) — are here.
So this is hardly the definitive Queen movie. That’s... fine. What we do get here is cheerworthy. From its very opening moments, during which the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare is performed, Queen-style, by the real May and Taylor, this is a terrific time at the movies, pure brash entertainment. It’s what we need right now.
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