‘BOHEMIAN Rhapsody’ starts and ends with Queen’s historically triumphant performance in the Live Aid benefit concert in 1985, whose spectacular immensity is masterfully recreated in the film. In between, Bryan Singer (who gets sole credit as director even if he was fired and replaced by Dexter Fletcher) competently shows us the highs and lows, trials and successes that the band goes through the past 15 years. It’s an involving depiction of how the band members met, their times, and their songs that became classic rock staples popular all over the world.
We’ve seen so many biopics of music greats through the years and the standouts for us are “Lady Sings the Blues” with Diana Ross as Billie Holiday, Sissy Spacek winning an Oscar as Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, “La Bamba” with Lou Diamond Philips as the ill fated Ritchie Valens, “What’s Love Got to Do with It” with Angela Bassett as Tina Turner, “Love & Mercy” with John Cusack as Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson struggling with mental illness, and the unheralded “I Saw the Light” with Tom Hiddleston as country music legend Hank Williams. We’re wondering, though, why we have yet to see filmbios of the bigger icons, like The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson. They had one of Elvis Presley, but it’s a mini-series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
Now, we have “Bohemian Rhapsody” and it’s Rami Malek (TV’s “Mr. Robot”) who dominates the film as he projects the ferocious energy of the talented, flamboyant but ultimately lonely vocalist, Freddie Mercury. Born in Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara, he’s a Parsi Zoroastrian whose family moved from Persia to England when he was in his late teens. In 1970, the band called Smile just lost their vocalist and the buck-toothed Farrokh, an airport baggage handler who’s their ardent fan, offers them himself. He auditions and quickly impresses guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) because he not only knows their songs but his voice has a surprising four octave range that enables him to instantly harmonize with them.
He also has a good ear for catchy melodies and lyrics, plus a flair for theatricality when they perform. The band is later joined by bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazello). Farrokh gives himself a new name, Freddie. His parents actually frown on him for calling himself Freddie and for wasting his time in going to London clubs.
But in only a couple of years, the new band of “four misfits playing to other misfits”, has sold three albums, did smash world tours especially in the U.S., and had a big hit with their six minute rock opera called “Bohemian Rhapsody”. It’s very long for a pop single in the 70s but its blend of jabberwocky and melodrama gets into the head of a generation of radio listeners who’s fascinated by its “Galileo Gallileo Figaro” lyrics. Also by “We are the Champions”, “We Will Rock You”, “Love of My Life”, “Radio Gaga” (is this where Lady Gaga got her name?) and “Another One Bites the Dust” that we all get to hear in the movie.
A shopgirl, Mary (Lucy Boynton), contributes to Freddie’s thrilling rise by capitalizing on his exotic looks and she later becomes his lover and wife, even if she knew he’s gay. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? What’s undeniable is that Freddie is a diva with a big ego, acting just like other primadonnas before him. He’s always late, has quite a temper and fond of hogging the headlines and getting the credit. He had feuds with record companies and even the BBC network.
But sadly, no amount of fame and fortune, substance abuse and orgies can fill in the void that he has inside of him. He struggles with his sexuality and one opportunistic member of his management team, Paul Prenter (Allan Leech), exploits him and when he dumps him, this leads to a scandalous TV interview delving into Freddie’s gayness. Then he got AIDS. He died in 1991 at only 45 years old due to complications from AIDS. Just a day before he died, he got to confirm publicly that he is afflicted with the disease.
The film succeeds in distilling an era and its music with an entertaining piece of music history. The concerts use real live Queen recordings and hiphop fans might not be able to appreciate it but they definitely defined the 70s and 80s. If you’re a fan who wants to know how Queen came up with the beat for “We Will Rock You” and the bass line for “Another One Bites the Dust”, you will find out here how they did it. It will also show you how “Bohemian Rhapsody” managed to be released after an argument with an industry executive. The casting of Mike Myers of “Austin Powers” works hilariously in the role of an EMI producer who doubts and proclaims “This will never sell. Radio stations will never play this.” Myers of “Saturday Night Live” sang the same song in the opening scene of his hit comedy, “Wayne’s World”, in 1992.
The movie focuses more on the music and Freddie’s performance and not on his being gay, which is treated coyly and never sensationalized. We see a truck driver giving Freddie a seductive look while going inside the toilet while he’s touring the U.S. but we don’t see what really happened. He tells Mary, “I’m bisexual”, and she tells him, “You’re gay, Freddie!” Except for kissing scenes with Paul (who also died of AIDS same year as Freddie) and with waiter Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who advised him to like himself first, no sex scenes are really shown since this is rated PG, after all. His relationship with Mary is given more importance than any gay dalliances. The movie is co-produced by Jim Beach (his producer) and his bandmates, so don’t expect it to dwell lengthily on his darker proclivities.
The filmbio is really a jukebox movie and will surely push the Freddie legend into new heights. It opened number one in the U.S. box office charts and we won’t be surprised if this would also revive interest in the hit stage musical, “We Will Rock You”, that combines the hit songs of Queen and which ran at the West End in London from 2002 to 2014, one of the longest- running musicals in West End history.