Movie biographies are tricky. How do you restructure messy life into a coherent narrative? Which incidents should be left in, discarded, or completely reimagined for the sake of story? But when the subject is the innovative rock group Queen, there’s one thing we expect absolutely—the soundtrack is going to be killer.
Fortunately, for the surviving members of Queen, the legacy of the legendary Freddie Mercury, and especially the audience, the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is more than just great music. From the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare scorched out of an electric guitar to the ecstatic grand finale of “We Are The Champions” live onstage, this is a joyride for Queen fans.
Directed by Bryan Singer (he was replaced by Dexter Fletcher toward the end of production, but retains the credit), the movie falls into some of the pitfalls of telescoping events to fit the format. But it heroically depicts the Queen era (late ’70s-early ’80s), and the band’s phenomenal creative energy and output.
Central is the dynamic performance of Rami Malek (TV’s Mr. Robot) as Freddie Mercury. Speculation on who would play Freddie haunted this project for years, but in Malek, the filmmakers found an actor unorthodox enough to embody the singer’s outsider persona, yet soulful enough to engage us in Freddie’s lifelong quest to become himself. Did I mention he does his own singing?
Malek also wears prosthetic teeth to replicate Mercury’s famous overbite. It’s a little awkward to watch at first, as the actor keeps pursing his lips over them, as if he’s trying too hard to mimic his subject. But Malek incorporates this trademark tic of Mercury’s into the truth of his performance.
The movie begins and ends with the Live Aid charity concert of 1985, where Queen faced a jam-packed Wembley Stadium in London and a live global audience to deliver a 20-minute set that literally rocked the world. In between, the story sticks to the chronology of Mercury’s life—born Farouk Bulsara in Zanzibar, and raised in London by proper Zoroastrian immigrant parents.
He’s hauling baggage at Heathrow Airport when he talks his way into a neighborhood bar band whose lead singer has just quit. Guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) give him a shot, and with the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), Queen is born. They have to sell Roger’s car to pay for making a demo, but they land a recording contract at EMI. The actors’ resemblances to the people they play are uncanny; vintage footage of the real-life Queen at the end looks like outtakes from the film.
The best scenes capture the band inventing itself from May’s solid musical grounding and Mercury’s desire to do “grand” things, and never repeat himself. The song “Bohemian Rhapsody” makes no sense as narrative. Nobody has a clue what it’s about. Nobody cares. The operatic, six-minute, style-shifting epic is something we get, intuitively, on a visceral level. Which is how it was conceived, according to this move’s delicious montage of the band crafting together the song’s diverse bits—on Mercury’s instinct alone. Their EMI producer hates it (that’s Mike Myers behind the shaggy wig, glasses, and Scottish burr). The critics are lukewarm. The fans adore it.
Revered now as an early LGBTQ champion, Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), his onetime live-in fiancée and lifelong friend, is central to the movie. (He wrote “Love of my Life” for her.) When he moves into his own mansion, he buys one for her nearby. They remain close for the rest of his life, despite interference from Freddie’s parasitic lover, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Mercury’s own bisexual experiments, shyly curious at first, blossom into gleeful self-discovery to match his flamboyant stage persona and outrageous costumes.
The movie celebrates the appeal of Queen not to gay, straight, or neutral audiences, nor fans of any particular genre, but as “misfits playing to other misfits.” How inclusive can you get? “We Are the Champions” is an equal-opportunity anthem. No wonder this movie zoomed to the top of the box office its first weekend!
***1/2 (out of four)
With Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy. Written by Anthony McCarten. Directed by Bryan Singer. A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG-13. 134 minutes.