8 out of 10
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury
Aaron McCusker as Jim Hutton
Directed by Bryan Singer
Bohemian Rhapsody Review:
Much like his band, and much to his bandmates chagrin, Bohemian Rhapsody owes most its joys to Queen frontman Freddy Mercury. The spirit of the man himself and the doppelganger (Malek) embodying him on screen imbue surprising life into what could be a by-the-numbers musical biopic. That’s not the fault of anyone who’s dived into this sort of territory before, there are just certain expectations it is difficult to escape short of a Todd Haynes-esque refutation of the genre itself. The band members meet, find success, are burdened by their success but eventually find their way through those burdens to something like piece.
Which pretty much sums up Bohemian Rhapsody’s view of Mercury’s life. [His bandmates, though essential, are still only lenses through which to view him]. Farouk Bulsara’s – cum Freddy Mercury’s – birth and early life in Zanzibar, in fact anything about his life before Freddy, is dispensed with in some early dialogue. As far as the filmmakers are considered (and at least within the film, Freddy himself) his life begins the moment he approaches Brian May (Lee) and Roger Taylor (Hardy) and joins what will eventually become rock-band Queen. After success on the college circuit Freddy convinces them to take the plunge and record their first demo, a demo which quickly makes its way to music manager John Reid (Gillen) and the rest as they say his history.
The beats in this sort of thing are so familiar – at least in part because most successful musical acts follow many of the same patterns in their professional lives – the real differentiation comes with the skill of the filmmaker behind the lens and the magnetism of the actor/character transformation in front. The answer in both cases is solid if not insightful but buoyed by Mercury’s all-encompassing approach to life. His desire to be the center of attention is so strong it reaches out from beyond the grave and encompasses us still, including whoever is tasked with his imitation. In his first studio level leading man role actor Rami Melek proves himself more than up to the task, slowly dissolving himself into Mercury’s elan. It’s not that he looks much like Mercury (though it gets closer once we reach 1980s era short hair and mustache) or even sounds like him (it’s more like Jupiter Rising level Eddie Redmayne) so much that he feels like him.
Or at least the version of Mercury that writer’s Peter Morgan and Anthony McCarten have envisioned, all sharp lines and just the right phrases at just the right times. The dialogue is sharp and pitched at exactly the level needed to encompass Mercury’s biting tongue (“I pity your wife” he tells a record producer who refuses to release Bohemian Rhapsody as a single because “nothing should last longer than 3 minutes.”). That’s about the level the script stops at, focused on the central thesis that Mercury needed to be the center of attention so much he couldn’t handle regular life and repeating it over and over to make sure we get it.
As incisive character study goes it’s at least easily digestible even if it flits about the facets of Mercury’s life looking for the most melodramatic. In that sense at least it is compatible with Singer’s (and however much was finished by replacement Dexter Fletcher) directorial style which is as much about the big emotions Queen’s concerts. A little uncertain and cluttered in claustrophobic character moments, when Singer can get out and fly his camera around all questions are forgotten. Nowhere is that more clear than in the recreation of Queen’s historic performance at Live Aid (after several rocky years apart) which bookend the film as if it were the moment the band was always building towards (rather than the one they were just prepared for).
And it does work. It could be because Mercury is just that engaging even in pantomime; good roles make good performances after all and Mercury really is the role of a lifetime. Probably more than one. It could be the strange conflict between Singer, Malek and script created just the right alchemic elements to create something greater than its individual parts, much as with the band itself. Or it could just be the music.