Bohemian Rhapsody shares more than just a title with the hit Queen song: It’s openly vulnerable, it’s tragically dramatic, and it’s heartbreakingly authentic. The film sets out on an ambitious quest to recall the rise and fall of a band loved by millions with the same meticulousness and candor that earned Queen a spot in the Hall of Fame.
The sound of “Somebody to Love” fills the air as Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) goes through his morning routine in his London mansion during the opening scene. The international sensation wakes up alone in a king-size bed and glides down the roads behind the cover of aviator sunglasses. The film sets a precedent for striking visuals, and every detail appears flawless—the weightlessness of Mercury’s silk robe as he floats through wide corridors, the shine of his sunglass lenses. One small, short sound shatters the air of perfection around Mercury’s rockstar life early in the film: A feeble cough pierces the air as the fearless lead singer first wakes up—a fleeting signal to those who know the story of Mercury’s early death. Much like the story to come, the first scene hides the ugly truth in the small details and leaves the audience to grapple with the tension between the glamorous appearance of the rockstar lifestyle and the unsettling challenges of reality.
A slow motion sequence of Mercury jumping and running onstage before a crowd of thousands gathered at Wembley Stadium for Queen’s reunion performance at Live Aid bookends the film. In the first scene, it almost seems as though Bohemian Rhapsody will be a film about Mercury, but during the second go-around, the audience sees bandmates guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) peek out behind the slender figure who casts a towering shadow. Bohemian Rhapsody is a film about a band’s road to fame—a road speckled with speed bumps and fueled by a killer playlist full of Queen’s best tracks such as “Killer Queen” and “Fat Bottomed Girls.”
Like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the film builds slowly. Against all conventional reason, this tactic works for the song, but the movie is not so fortunate. Director Bryan Singer spends copious amounts of time telling the story of the band’s formation and Mercury’s humble beginnings as Farrokh Bulsara, a misunderstood British boy with a powerful voice. While the exposition drags on, the details of Mercury’s contentious relationship with his father (Ace Bhatti), rocky relationship with his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), and somehow more complicated relationship with himself add depth to the character.
Malek stuns as the flamboyant frontman, nailing Mercury’s mannerisms and at times cracking a lisp as a result of the singer’s overbite. Malek manages to accurately portray the tough exterior of the legend without draining the character of emotion. While stopped at a gas station on the band’s first American tour, Mercury stares down the door of the occupied men’s restroom, looks of curiosity, confusion, and fear washing over his silent face in a second’s time. Mercury’s sexual exploration is handled tastefully throughout the film. Audiences see the passionate singer in deep relationships with both women and men, but differentiate between the nature of the two. While the frontman comes across as sexual and rowdy on stage, Singer avoids sensationalizing Mercury’s later promiscuity and drug use offstage, a move that saves the character from losing favor during his bender and break from Queen.
Chemistry between the actors adds to the intensity of the film, whether the audience is listening in on a screaming match over tracklists or laughing along to their hilarious British banter. Isolated from the noise of the city, the band moves to the countryside to record its most risqué work: A Night at the Opera, an album Mercury formulates in a meeting with record label bigwig, declaring his intention to produce “a rock and roll record with the scale of opera.” Taylor and Deacon nearly brawl in the kitchen of the rustic home the band rented to record the album while arguing the merits of “I’m in Love with My Car.” Hardy delivers a standout supporting performance, baring his emotions with glossy tears when Mercury shares the news of his AIDs diagnosis just days before Queen’s career defining show. The film fulfills Mercury’s wish to die a superstar rather than a victim, lending its last minutes to an emotional medley of the band’s Live Aid performance.
Mazzello offers perhaps the most important line of the film while at the first meeting with manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen): “Every band’s not Queen.” The story of Bohemian Rhapsody writes itself: The legendary rock band supplied all the tragedy and comedy that graced the screen, as well as the soundtrack to go along with it. Whether the musicians are performing Queen’s “Love of My Life” before a sea of souls singing the lyrics back to them or sitting at a lone piano in a drab living room, their music retains its timeless power. Clips of early BBC sessions and scenes from the band’s real Live Aid performance provide the framework for the film, but Singer fills in the gaps with a talented cast, heartfelt dialogue, and immersive cinematography to create a modern masterpiece.
Featured Image by 20th Century Fox