Freddie Mercury

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody 

I loved this movie.

I don’t usually start a review with that sentence. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever started a review with that sentence. But, after reading several other critiques, I need to make that point right up front.

Bohemian Rhapsody dramatizes the rise of the rock band Queen, which achieved legendary status with the release of their eclectic six-minute anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975. Formerly, a conventional and modestly popular group, the experimental genre-bending “Rhapsody” proclaimed the British foursome nascent superstars who would soon record “We Are the Champions,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and “We Will Rock You” among many classics.

While this is a movie about Queen, the band’s frontman, Farrokh Bulsara (aka Freddie Mercury), regularly dominates the screenplay. Bulsara was born into a Parsi family on Zanzibar, where his Indian father worked in the British colonial office. The Bulsaras eventually emigrated to England where Farrokh kicked around with various bar bands before joining a band called Smile led by virtuoso guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee). A brilliantly creative, classically-trained pianist, Bulsara incorporated opera and other musical expressions into the band’s traditional rock performances and changed his legal name to Freddie Mercury.

While virtually everyone has praised Rami Malek’s portrayal of Mercury, some have complained that the film isn’t deep enough and slavishly follows the cliches of musical movie bios. And the fact is, the movie so closely follows Queen’s Wikipedia entry the website essay should come with a spoiler alert.

Some are offended by that situation, but I thought it was the movie’s strongest point. 

Bohemian Rhapsody wondrously recreates what was, and spends little time speculating. Thankfully, there’s almost no pseudo-psychological conjecture in this movie. It’s a story about what Mercury and Queen gave us and not a pretentious exploration of who Freddie Mercury “really” was.

The performer’s sexual orientation, promiscuity, and battle with AIDS are features of the movie. They’re just not the central themes. The movie’s about the creativity, tenacity, and discipline it took to get Queen’s revolutionary music made. The filmmakers are intent on conveying Queen’s genius and aren’t obsessed with the most salacious aspects of Freddie Mercury’s dalliances.

Ironically, the love of Mercury’s life, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), provides recurring moments of stability throughout the film. The story of their lengthy struggle to maintain an intimate relationship is heartbreaking. Boynton effectively depicts a woman who’s simultaneously frustrated, committed, hurt, in love, jealous, angry, loyal, resentful and proud of her best friend. That’s a pretty good act to pull off, which Boynton does quite nicely.

The relationship between Mercury and Austin is another example of Rhapsody not being overwritten. There’s no manic-depressive roller coaster; no baseball bats shattering car windshields.There are no hysterical episodes in the street of the kind that writers often use to depict the emotionally damaged.There’s just a sad commitment to a love between soulmates even after he’s made a life with another man. The lack of drama may be another biopic tangent some feel they’ve been cheated out of. The hopeless love story just made my heart hurt.

But Rhapsody is not a Freddie Mercury biopic. It’s a film about Queen. Lee is especially strong as Brian May. Joseph Mazzello (the boy from the original Jurassic Park) as John Deacon and Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor have their moments as well.  

I went into the theater hoping for the best, and I got it. While not a concert film, the engaging portrayal of the band’s creative process repeatedly leads to electric performances of their songs. Queen produced a catalog of euphoria, and I felt a sense of elation even during the sad parts. How depressing would Rhapsody have been if the film had taken the tabloid route? If you don’t feel shivers at key musical moments in this movie, I feel sad for you.  

Late in the movie, Queen performs at the Live Aid concert televised worldwide. Malek’s Freddie Mercury, who should be at home convalescing, instead delivers the performance of his life. With 100,000 audience members in the palm of his hand, Mercury belts out a joyful rendition of “Radio GaGa,” including what’s been called “The Note Heard Around the World.” The rapturous crowd returns Mercury’s call lyric-for-lyric.

It’s the last scene in this wonderful movie that made me cry.

 

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.