Music

God Save Queen

Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (Twentieth Century Fox )
The new film Bohemian Rhapsody captures the spirit of the legendary ’70s band.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Also: Will you do the fandango? Can anybody find me someone to love? And: Who wants to live forever? Running through these pertinent questions with Professor Freddie Mercury at Queen College makes for a largely joyous two hours at Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie that lacks much in the way of imaginative filmmaking but has a subject I find irresistible.

A movie that consisted of nothing but making-of stories about the dozen or so best Queen songs, and playing them over a theater sound system, would best nearly everything actually offered at the multiplex this year. Indeed, I’d be thrilled to watch an entire movie about the making of the title song, which struck me as by far the weirdest and most gripping pop track I’d ever encountered when I first heard it on a transistor radio next to my bed when I was falling asleep, aged nine. You would call such a movie, I suppose, “Bohemian Rhapsody Rhapsody.” That 1975 opus stands beside Brian Wilson’s pocket masterpiece “Good Vibrations” in the category of rock singles with the density of neutron stars. I wish I could hear either of them for the first time again.

Recording that demented pileup of weepy piano ballad, bombastic metal, and fake opera is a highlight of the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, featuring a spritely but screen-filling Rami Malek (the Mr. Robot star) as the camptastic Zanzibar-born British singer from a conservative Zoroastrian family. We see him as a youth in his sternly middle-class home. On the wall — this is a witty moment — is a portrait of the Queen.

One royal inspires another. Born Farrokh Bulsara, the youth recasts himself as “Freddie” and presents himself at a pub to a band called Smile that has just lost its lead singer. Drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) are skeptical until he busts out a few notes. “I have four extra incisors,” the singer explains. That means a bigger mouth, which means a greater vocal range, or so he thinks. On stage his act amounts to Mick Jagger, only more so.

Music and costumes can be enough to make a movie, it turns out: Julian Day’s amazing array of reimagined Seventies fashions gives the eye plenty to do while the soundtrack wells with the gorgeous bombast of the original recordings (not recreations) of those Queen hits. So I enjoyed the film, even as I wished for more from the director, Bryan Singer, than lackluster cinematic and thematic choices. There’s the usual breakthrough scene when an important phone call comes in informing Freddie that the band has acquired management help, the usual making-it-big-montage, the usual squabbles with the suits — although, as this is the Seventies, the suits wear Hawaiian shirts and shrubbery on their faces. (Mike Myers is in this movie somewhere; see if you can spot him.)

The usual this-is-so-crazy-it’s-bound-to-flop scene feels a bit rote when the band plead for “Bohemian Rhapsody” to be released as a single though deejays prefer shorter songs. Since many tracks that were even longer had proved radio mainstays by 1975 (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Stairway to Heaven,” etc.), this is a stale argument. Rather than hear about how a soon-to-be famous song is sure to flop, I’d rather Singer had made time for more of the best Queen compositions or had a scene about the making of “Under Pressure,” only a snippet of which is heard in passing.

Nor does Singer deliver a deep understanding of Mercury. He was with his longtime love Mary Austin (a touching Lucy Boynton) for six years before he told her he was bisexual; no, she corrected him, he was gay. Singer hesitates to depict Mercury as promiscuous, leaving it to the side via a montage of the singer diving into the early-80s leather scene, instead focusing on Mercury’s longtime relationship with Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who is presented as the primary reason Mercury fell out with the band for a time, before they reunited for the 1985 Live Aid concert in London.

Singer builds way too much of the movie around that 20-minute performance, which leaves him little time for anything but a superficial treatment of the principal conflicts of Mercury’s life, such as the turmoil he must have felt as he was deceiving the woman he loved. Singer is equally shallow about Mercury’s uneasy relationship with his Zoroastrian family. But he does get himself worked up about how the press shouted impertinent questions at Mercury at a press conference about the band’s 1982 album. You can guess why Singer (who was fired before completing this film amid sexual-misconduct allegations) is not a fan of reporters asking too many questions about celebrities, but it’s the worst, most self-serving scene in the movie. Mercury’s problem is not the press.

It turns out that Mercury was already ill with AIDS when he agreed to do that memorable Live Aid show, his performance at which is how he remains in memory: bouncy, campy, irrepressible, scarcely containable within Wembley Stadium. When Mercury died six years later, his masterpiece hit No. 1 on the British pop charts again. This time it sounded even more haunting: Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go. Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.

Most Popular

Culture

What We’ve Learned about Jussie Smollett

It’s been a few weeks since March 26, when all charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and the actor declared that his version of events had been proven correct. How’s that going? Smollett’s celebrity defenders have gone quiet. His publicists and lawyers are dodging reporters. The @StandwithJussie ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Lessons of the Mueller Probe

Editor’s Note: The following is the written testimony submitted by Mr. McCarthy in connection with a hearing earlier today before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on the Mueller Report (specifically, the first volume of the report, which addresses Russia’s interference in the 2016 ... Read More
Elections

Kamala Harris Runs for Queen

I’m going to let you in on a secret about the 2020 presidential contest: Unless unforeseen circumstances lead to a true wave election, the legislative stakes will be extremely low. The odds are heavily stacked against Democrats’ retaking the Senate, and that means that even if a Democrat wins the White House, ... Read More
World

Why Are the Western Middle Classes So Angry?

What is going on with the unending Brexit drama, the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s election, and the “yellow vests” protests in France? What drives the growing estrangement of southern and eastern Europe from the European Union establishment? What fuels the anti-EU themes of recent European elections and ... Read More
Energy & Environment

The Climate Trap for Democrats

The more the climate debate changes, the more it stays the same. Polls show that the public is worried about climate change, but that doesn’t mean that it is any more ready to bear any burden or pay any price to combat it. If President Donald Trump claws his way to victory again in Pennsylvania and the ... Read More
White House

Sarah Sanders to Resign at End of June

Sarah Huckabee Sanders will resign from her position as White House press secretary at the end of the month, President Trump announced on Twitter Thursday afternoon. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1139263782142787585 Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, succeeded Sean ... Read More
Politics & Policy

But Why Is Guatemala Hungry?

I really, really don’t want to be on the “Nicolas Kristof Wrote Something Dumb” beat, but, Jiminy Cricket! Kristof has taken a trip to Guatemala, with a young woman from Arizona State University in tow. “My annual win-a-trip journey,” he writes. Reporting from Guatemala, he discovers that many ... Read More