Bohemian Rhapsody is a by-the-number biopic via the Greatest Hits route. Bryan Singer’s film about Freddie Mercury and the band Queen that he fronted in the 1970s and ’80s lacks a core idea to anchor the narrative. But the 134-minute film ladles out just about enough information about its brilliant lead singer and his bandmates to qualify as the official version of Queen’s history.
This isn’t to say that Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t absorbing or that it doesn’t tug the heartstrings, especially in its later sequences. Singer’s deeply conventional film gets all its energy from its irrepressible lead character, played by Rami Malek, and the songs, which have been retained in Mercury’s original voice. Queen’s surviving members are among the producers, and have presumably approved some of the key changes in chronology. For instance, though the film depicts Mercury as telling his band mates that he had contracted AIDS before the historic Live Aid concert in London in 1985, he actually did so afterwards. (Mercury died in November, 1991.)
The movie begins with Mercury auditioning to be lead singer of the band Smile (later rechristened Queen). Mercury enters the story fully formed. Though he was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar and spent much of his childhood in India, his Parsi background barely gets a look-in. Bulsara had started calling himself Freddie while studying in India, and he formed a band at his boarding school in Panchgani – vital, biopic-friendly details that might have elicited greater audience interest if the screenplay had actually been more curious about Mercury’s Indian origins.
Indian viewers might similarly be disappointed at the cursory explanations about Mercury’s Zoroastrian faith in Anthony McClaren’s screenplay, its clunky handling of the scenes revolving around his family and its inability to process the significance of his achievement for the subcontinent – a brown man in a white world, racing to the top on the strength of an enviable vocal range that he believed was enhanced by his prominent overbite.
Rami Malek overcomes the often-distracting fake teeth and prosthetic make-up to deliver a strong performance that accentuate his character’s shades and bouts of loneliness and self-doubt. Malek just about keeps step with Mercury’s real-life flamboyance and cutting humour, but the actor works hard in all his scenes, and is especially effective in the recreations of the sell-out concerts, where he has Mercury’s pirouetting down pat. Malek brings a sweet vulnerability to his Mercury, and is in tune with the movie’s tendency to play it safe rather than let things rip.
Despite being in a great rush to count down the milestones in Queen’s journey, Bohemian Rhapsody does pause to acknowledge Mercury’s queer identity in as permissible a manner as is possible for a studio-backed production. Bohemian Rhapsody has been made in an age where queer rights are far more widely accepted than they were when Mercury was starting out. It is perhaps difficult for younger viewers to comprehend that Mercury wasn’t yet another gender-fluid and outré-dressing rock star who was playing to the gallery.
The making of the music video for the song I Want to Break Free, which featured the band members in drag and earned a ban from MTV in America, zips by, and meaningful looks, strings of white powder, empty bottles and groups of tough-looking men collectively indicate the lifestyle excesses. It’s when the movie finally stops playing around and examines the dark clouds that gather on Mercury’s horizon that Bohemian Rhapsody settles into the rhythms of the biopic.
Among the stronger sequences are the back stories of some of the band’s best-loved songs, especially the six-minute Bohemian Rhapsody. Mercury’s band-mates – Gwliylm Lee as lead guitarist Brian May, Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor, Joseph Mazello as bassist John Deacon – gather respectably around their leading man at all times, but come into their own in a scene in which they have some fun at his expense. Tom Hollander has a nifty cameo as Jim Beach, the band’s suited-booted lawyer who goes along with Queen’s adventures.
In the end, the movie belongs to Freddie Mercury, the Bohemian rhapsodiser of the title, who conquers with his voice from beyond the grave. The movie comes alive every time Mercury’s sonorous voice booms out of the screen. His powerful singing makes it possible to endure the flat writing and staging with your eyes shut and your ears open.