It’s nice to be wrong about a movie sometimes. Though I was incredibly sceptical about this biopic of Queen and their extraordinary frontman Freddie Mercury, it turned out to be one of the most purely enjoyable and entertaining cinema experiences I’ve had in a while.
The main reason the very prospect of this movie had made me wince is that Queen hold a very special place in my heart. They were my first musical love and a band I was completely obsessed with in my teens; their Greatest Hits II tape was the first piece of music I bought with my own money and a giant poster of Freddie Mercury decorated my bedroom in our old Russian apartment. Though I’ve branched out since then and discovered a myriad other artists and bands, you never forget your first love, and the idea that someone might botch it and make a crappy movie about Queen made me cringe hard. The choice of Bryan Singer as the director didn’t exactly inspire confidence and the trailer made the film look like the most boring, conventional, by-the-numbers thing imaginable.
Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly by-the-numbers, no arguing here. It trots out all the conventional biopic beats and frequently fudges facts in order to adhere to the well-worn rise-fall-rise biopic formula, weaving together separate real-life events for the sake of emotional climax. The whirlwind trip through Queen’s career and the dramatic life of Freddie ticks all the familiar boxes. Humble beginnings, as young Farrokh Bulsara, the son of immigrants from Zanzibar, works as a baggage handler and endures racial slurs while already dreaming big. Stratospheric rise to fame as Freddie Mercury with the band eventually renamed Queen. The rising tensions in Freddie’s life, as he struggles with his sexual identity, loneliness and drugs and clashes with his bandmates. Reconciliation and redemption at the 1985 Live Aid. It’s a stock-standard trajectory and the hackneyed script is guilty of many cheesy moments, clunky expository dialogue and painfully on-the-nose musical references.
These were the things that my critical brain noticed, but in the end it was completely overruled, because, from the moment the usual 20th Century Fox fanfare morphed into Brian May’s guitar riffage, the movie was a joy and delight to watch and made this Queen fan very happy indeed. The success is mostly down to the film nailing a few crucial things. Though the three other Queen members – Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon – don’t get anywhere as much attention or dramatic meat as Freddie, they’re impeccably cast and you do get a sense of Queen as a bickering family of misfits who don’t belong together on paper and yet possess a magical chemistry yielding some of the most memorable and enduring music in the history of rock. The film’s live sequences, especially the almost note-for-note recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance, are absolutely exhilarating. I really felt like I was watching Queen onscreen, not actors impersonating Queen.
What ultimately holds the movie together though is Rami Malek’s astonishing, 200% committed transformation into Freddie Mercury. Though he’s rather shorter and less pretty than real Freddie, he perfectly captures the larger-than-life swagger, charisma and flamboyance, while also lending his character depth beyond the rather simplistic script. As someone who doubted that anyone could do Freddie justice onscreen, I can safely say I was blown away. I can agree with the critics that Freddie’s sexuality and debauchery get treated mostly with polite restraint (like Imitation Game, Bohemian Rhapsody spends more time on its main character’s relationship with his female soulmate rather than depictions of homosexual experiences). But for a PG-rated film made for the widest possible audience, I think the movie took it as far as it can.
Bohemian Rhapsody is basically the proof that film is an emotional experience first and most, and that it’s possible to overlook flaws when the movie grabs you by the feels. It’s cheerfully bombastic and short on subtlety, but so is Queen’s music, one can argue.
P.S. I’m pretty certain I saw a glimpse of young U2, including Bono with his dreadful 80s mullet, coming down the stairs past the band in the opening sequence. If anyone makes a U2 biopic one day, it would naturally have to re-create their own special Live Aid moment.