“Bohemian Rhapsody” is framed perfectly — beginning and ending with Queen’s triumphant, show-stealing turn in the star-studded Live Aid benefit concert in 1985.
Director Bryan Singer trots us through the standard musical biopic “Moment When They Met” and “Moments of Creation” with brisk, efficient skill and wit.
The movie traverses the familiar, almost formulaic arc of such films with a fan’s brio — highlights, low-points, tests and triumph.
Everyone Singer cast, from star Rami Malek, who gives a break-out turn as the flamboyant, talented and lonely Freddie Mercury, to the lads hired as the rest of Queen is both a dead ringer for the person they’re playing and a fun performance.
Casting Mike Myers of “Wayne’s World” as a record company Doubting Thomas –“This will never sell…radio stations will never play this” — is an inside joke that works hilariously.
So let others quibble about the story’s hero, Mercury, not being portrayed as gay enough. It’s a movie about Queen, for Pete’s sake. There are a couple of baccanales, bar and truckstop pickups making overt what was ALWAYS known and accepted about Mercury in that Golden Age of Rock Androgyny (Bowie, Bolan, Elton, etc.).
And make whatever peace you can with the cloud that the director’s #MeToo reputation and lawsuit over an alleged rape casts over the film. Others appear to be reviewing “Bohemian” with that foremost in their minds.
I found “Bohemian Rhapsody” an unadulterated delight, a longish quick-brush-strokes depiction of the band, their times and the creation of the music that made them stadium rock staples, Classic Rock mainstays and idolized the world over.
That’s why picking that Live Aid peak to frame it is perfect. They could and should have been irrelevant in the mid-MTV mid-80s. But as Mercury played the Wembley Stadium crowd and the worldwide TV audience as just an extension of his concert grand piano, we all remembered that we knew the words he was demanding that we sing along to. And most of us, and generations that have followed, haven’t forgotten them.
We meet toothy Farrokh Bulsara (Malek), a Parsi Zoroastrian whose family was chased from Persia to Zanzibar (where he was born) to the United Kingdom, so that his fellow airport baggage handlers and others could ask, “‘Oi! Oo’s the Paki?,” rolling out their favorite slur.
The rock trio Smile finds itself in need of a new lead singer, and their most attentive, hopeful fan, Farrokh, offers his services (shyly arrogant) and auditions on the spot. Astrophysics major and guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer-studying-to-be-a-dentist Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) are gobsmacked. Not just that the guy knows their tunes and can instantly harmonize with them. It’s his range.
From the first, they’re in the thrall of the renamed “Freddie,” his singing voice, his ear for catchy melodies and clever lyrics, and his theatricality. His “exotic” look is played up by the shopgirl (Lynn Boynton) who is smitten by Freddie and becomes his lover and later wife.
The movie might have peaked too early, rushing through Queen’s name change, “Like her Royal Highness,” image building, feuds with record companies and the BBC, jumping almost straight into the conception and amusingly painstaking and analog construction of their most famous song.
We’ll give rock fans “A Night at the Opera,” Freddie tells the record company folks (Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander and Myers), dropping the needle on an aria from “Madame Butterfly.” And so they did.
What they went through to achieve this cryptic, genre mash-up epic — recording portions and recording them via speakers swung past the mike in the studio, etc. — could have taken up the entire film.
But other tunes — “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” get similar “This is where that came from” treatment. Any fan will thrill to these moments.
Freddie’s double-life tests his devotion to Mary (Boynton) and Queen’s growing fame pressures the “family” the band members claim that they are. Freddie was a self-styled diva, taking his cues from Callas and Garland (always tardy, temperamental, credit hogging). It’s hard to be a band of brothers with that much ego in the room.
The money, fame, drugs, orgies, mansion and wealth cannot fill the loneliness Freddie carries around with him. One manipulative employee turned lover/manager (Allan Leech plays Paul Prenter) roils the waters and breaks the bonds.
As I said, it’s a time-tested musical bio-pic story arc, with Singer taking a shot at structuring this in the style of “Bohemian Rhapsody” itself — overture, crescendo, and onward — “the scale of opera,” as Freddie says in the film, “the wit of Shakespeare,” rock as musical theater.
With two of the surviving band members signed on as producers, the picture never gets past the surface dynamics of that relationship — lightly mocking the foibles of this or that member, backing into fresh appreciations of their role in the group in creating their best songs.
As for their guardianship of Mercury, this is the way Freddie would want to be remembered.
Freddie’s family comes off as more of a hoary plot device than the font of his talent. But his every relationship has a sort of chill that stems from that, a marriage never shown to be particularly romantic, a gay life that connected with who he really was, but unfulfilling in a lot of “finding love when you’re already famous” pitfalls.
It is the performances that lift “Bohemian Rhapsody” above formula, with Malek’s on stage lip-syncing of Mercury’s singing showmanship eerily on the money and accurate. He wields a mike stand like a pro (we see the evolution of this) and Malek even copies Mercury’s stage-crossing skip-step, a memorable piece of his Live Aid turn.
Every concert moment (using live Queen recordings for sound) packs a thrill, every studio moment a fun realization of “Oh, THAT’s how they did that.”
Maybe it’s for fans only and whatever its relevance culturally, Queen is very much a product of the 70s’ and 80s. So Lady Gaga’s legions and Kendrick Lamar’s customers might not appreciate it on that level.
But “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Rami Malek cleverly and warmly distill an era and its music into a thoroughly entertaining piece of music history.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazello, Tom Hollander, Aiden Gillen, Allan Leech, and Mike Myers
Credits: Directed by Bryan Singer, script by Anthony McCarten. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time: 2:14