“Bohemian Rhapsody,” a new biopic film, will excite even the most casual rock fans in this enjoyable exploration into the music of Queen and its larger than life frontman, Freddie Mercury, portrayed perfectly by Rami Malek.
At its core, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a story of isolation and identity. Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, had created a public persona built almost entirely on fabrications and lies. He legally changed his name, lied about his childhood, claimed his living parents were dead and, for much of his career, had to keep his sexuality a secret. All the falsehoods that surrounded him left Freddie lost and alone; desperate for connection, he often searched for love and belonging in the wrong places.
The film focuses on three key relationships in Freddie’s life: Mary Austin, Paul Prenter and his fellow band members. Mary was Freddie’s girlfriend at the beginning of his career. Their romantic relationship started falling apart when Freddie came to terms with his homosexuality, but they remained close friends throughout Freddie’s life and he considered her the love of his life, if only in a platonic sense.
Paul was Freddie’s personal assistant and off-and-on lover, who pushed the singer into heavy drug use and promiscuity. His Svengali-like control over Freddie is revealed slowly throughout the film and contributes to much of the downfalls in Freddie’s life and career. The band serves as a surrogate family, but this unit devolves when Freddie’s behavior becomes increasingly excessive while the others begin to settle down.
The beginning of the film plays out in the format of a formulaic music biopic. All the typical notes are hit – a fledgling band loses their original lead singer before meeting the iconic front man, the band fights a doubting music executive and finally achieves success with that song they’re told no one will play.
However, once the eponymous song becomes a sensation, the film improves dramatically, shifting its focus to Freddie and his life. The breakdown of Freddie’s relationship with Mary, Paul’s increased influence in his life and Freddie’s strained relationship with the other band members when they all marry and have children degrades their status as a family in Freddie’s eyes.
This shift from a positive to a more ominous mood might be explained by last-minute changes in staff. Near the end of production of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” director Bryan Singer was fired and replaced with less seasoned director Dexter Fletcher.
Rami Malek is electric as Freddie, effectively capturing everything that made him such a magnetic performer and enigmatic figure. He captivates every moment he is onscreen. Near the end of the film, there is a fairly long stretch dedicated to recreating Queen’s set at Live Aid. Since that set is considered to be one of the best rock performances of all time, spending a considerable stretch of time recreating this moment at the film’s climax comes with considerable risk — with the wrong performer, the scene could fall lifelessly flat, or feel like a cheap impersonation.
But Malek grants the whole scene the overwhelming energy of the original performance, transporting viewers to the perspective of the live crowd. “Bohemian Rhapsody” should prove to the world what Mr. Robot fans have known for years — Rami Malek is a force to be reckoned with, and a veritable rising star.
While Malek is clearly the standout of the film, much of the supporting cast serves to create an effective and fun ensemble. Allen Leech is remarkable as Paul Prenter. He perfectly captures Prenter’s transition from a seemingly kind, supportive figure to a cold-hearted leech bringing destruction and isolation wherever he goes.
Ben Hardy is charming and hilarious as drummer Roger Taylor. Portraying Taylor as a snarky, occasionally tantrum-prone ladies’ man, Hardy delightfully hits every clever line with wit.
On the other hand, Gwilym Lee has very little acting to do as guitarist Brian May. Serving as the straight man, the script left Brian nearly devoid of personality. It feels as though May, an executive producer of the film, insisted in coming across well in the film, and therefore was rather bland in comparison to Freddie and Roger.
Lucy Boynton is sweet and likable as Freddie’s longtime companion and onetime fiancée Mary Austin. Boynton is given one of the more sympathetic scenes, in which she must confront Freddie on his infidelities and the broken state of their romance, and she delivers a quietly heartbreaking turn.
Costume designer Julian Day handled the challenge of capturing the aesthetic of the Queen era superbly. Mercury’s variety of ostentatious sartorial choices stand out the most, and the costume department took great pains to recreate his many fun and flamboyant costumes in both concerts and parties. The actors are remarkably physically transformed into their real life counterparts, with a faithful commitment to authenticity.
Although the performances were strong and the visuals were stunning, there was a key weakness in the depiction of Mercury’s life. With a PG-13 rating, “Bohemian Rhapsody” does not have the freedom to explore the darker side of Mercury, particularly his sex life and drug use fueled by Prenter. While viewers definitely get the sense of events in his life, the film does not delve as deeply as it should have. This is crucial considering the impact his death and legacy had in addressing the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
While the film does, at times, fall into the standard biopic formula, the fascinating protagonist and brilliant leading performance rise above the formula to create something truly heartwarming and enjoyable.