If ever a musician was born to be featured on the big screen, it’s Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen and an all-around consummate performer. And yet the making of the Mercury/Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody endured numerous false starts and key personnel changes since first being announced in 2010. The final product, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Rami Malek as Mercury, is a mostly good enough movie over most of its length and concludes with a final sequence that is absolutely transcendent and will make you forget about the sometimes pedestrian sequences that preceded it. Even if you knew nothing about Freddie Mercury or Queen before seeing this movie, by the time the final credits roll you will fully appreciate just what made them so special.
When we first meet Mercury, he’s working as a baggage handler and being abused by his white coworkers for being a “Paki” (a slur for someone from Pakistan; in fact he was born in Zanzibar, the child of Parsi parents, and emigrated to England with his family). From there, Bohemian Rhapsody hits the key points one expects from a musical biopic—joining the band, proving his worth, experiencing success, falling in love, having conflicts with the money guys, discovering another kind of love (OK, that’s not part of the conventional formula), falling prey to the excesses made possible by success (like turning your house into a miniature version of Studio 54) quarreling with the band, and of course the band getting back together again so we can have that amazing closing concert (Live Aid at Wembley Stadum in 1985). The timeline may be a bit distorted compared to reality (Mercury’s first solo album came out the same year as the Live Aid concert), but that’s standard practice in a biopic, where no one expect a documentary fidelity to the bare facts. Musical performances are salted throughout the film’s running length, so although this is hardly a jukebox movie, there are enough performances to keep the fans attentive.
One big difference between Mercury and your average rocker, of course, is his sexual preference. He had the misfortune to be gay in a time when open prejudice against gay people was the norm. He also lived at a time when the strange new disease that we now know as AIDS was decimating the gay male community, with effective treatments a decade or more away. The fact that Mercury could produce the kind of performance he did at Wembley, while his health was seriously affected by the disease that would eventually kill him, is a demonstration of how mental determination can sometimes overcome physical affliction.
Bohemian Rhapsody features a number of excellent performances in secondary roles, including Gwilym Lee as Brian May (a student of astrophysics when he met Mercury, so don’t let anyone tell you music and brains don’t go together), Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor, and Joseph Mazzello as John Deacon. Although we learn far more about Mercury than any of his bandmates, the unconventional nature of the band’s working process is emphasized in a number of rehearsal scenes. Lucy Boynton is outstanding at Mary Austin, Mercury’s first love and lifelong best friend, as are Aaron McCusker as Mercury’s partner in the last years of his life, and Tom Hollander, Aidan Gillen, and Mike Myers as representatives of the music industry. | Sarah Boslaugh