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.