I learned about the “Freddie Mercury” movie many years ago, when Sacha Baron Cohen was attached to it. He could have easily “passed” for the Queen frontman, and he’s not a terrible singer, so I was OK with it. But then he exited, over “creative differences,” and I figured that biopic would disappear. After all, who could, without excessive (and distracting) prosthetics, convince us that he was Mercury?
Enter Rami Malek. As Elliot Alderson in “Mister Robot,” he plays a psychologically unstable hacker. Impressive as a quirky indie star, yes, but as the larger-than-life, flamboyant Mercury? I was intrigued but had my doubts. Then, not long ago, the first image of Malek as Mercury surfaced. Sporting a moustache; wearing a white singlet, tight jeans, and a spiked arm band; and gripping his belt and microphone, he looked every inch the Live Aid frontman. My interest ratcheted up.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” opened on Nov. 2, and I didn’t hesitate to see it in IMAX. I’m glad I made that choice. This film is a spectacle, and it’s best experienced on the biggest screen possible. I was blown away. The music, the story and, most notably, the performances. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if Malek doesn’t get an Oscar for this, it will be a travesty. He beautifully navigates every character moment, from aching loneliness to rock god magic, strutting around and belting out one iconic song after another.
He is well matched by his costars, particularly Gwilym Lee, who is a dead ringer for guitarist Brian May; Ben Hardy, who plays drummer Roger Taylor; Lucy Boynton, who plays Mercury’s wife, Mary Austin; Tom Hollander, who plays the band’s lawyer turned manager; and Aidan Gillen, who is John Reid, the band’s initial manager. The fine acting derives from an exceptional script. Not surprising, this one was written by two-time Oscar nominee, Anthony McCarten, who also scripted The Theory of Everything – the biopic of Stephen Hawking – and Darkest Hour – a biopic about Winston Churchill.
Kudos also should be given to director Bryan Singer; a rather controversial figure in recent years, due to sexual assault allegations; and Dexter Fletcher, who stepped in after Singer exited the production.
Above all, though, the real star of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the music, and the highlight, is watching the band conceive of, record, and promote their six-minute homage to opera, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is quite possibly one of the greatest songs of all time. What makes this part of the film even more fun is the fact that you get to watch an almost unrecognizable Mike Myers playing (fictional) producer Ray Foster, who refuses to release the song as a single.
Of course, those who remember the “Saturday Night Live” sketch, and subsequent film, “Wayne’s World,” know that Myers and Dana Carvey were instrumental in making the Queen song climb to No. 2 on the charts, nearly 20 years after it debuted. Another highlight is watching Queen performing at Live Aid. It is a goosebump-raising moment. Malek is top notch.
Some directors decide to have their actors perform as the artist — Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison comes to mind — but in this case, Malek’s vocals are provided by Mercury, and that was wise. No one can sing as Mercury can. Because of his overbite, something for which he was mercilessly teased as a child, he had a unique vibrato that can’t be easily duplicated. Mercury also had a three-octave range.
What I’ve always loved about Queen is that they didn’t have a formula instead they created music that was as unique and as eclectic as its bandmates. How many groups can say they are made up of musicians who have degrees in astrophysics, biology, electronics, and graphic design? The result of these musical “nerds” was a flurry of memorable hits, including my particular favorites: “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Bicycle Race,” “We Are the Champions,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Somebody to Love,” “Killer Queen,” “Flash” and, of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (If I had any complaints about the film it is that it didn’t include a section on how they contributed to the “Flash Gordon” soundtrack. I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall of that studio.)
Despite its box office success — the opening weekend draw was about $50 million — the film has been met with mixed reviews, with some complaining that it doesn’t focus enough on Mercury’s sexuality. Apparently when Baron Cohen was attached, he had envisioned a lot more nudity and sex; the other members of Queen had a different vision. I’m glad that they went in the direction they did. Queen to me is the music, not Mercury’s sexual activities. Yes, he was gay; yes, he died of AIDS, but this isn’t really that story. This is a story of a band. To focus more on his personal life, I think would prove a distraction. It doesn’t shy away from his homosexuality; it just isn’t the focus.
Does it do a disservice to Mercury? I don’t think so. He was a dynamic performer; a showman, and all of that is on display here. We see him struggling with his sexuality; with his “repressive” Indian home … we watch him shaping his identity, and, sadly, being manipulated by others. This portrait will have you laughing, cheering, and crying. It’s powerful stuff. No one will come away from this not recognizing his talent and genius. And I think that’s the best way to honor him. He gave the world his voice and a vision, and we are a better place because of it.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is the first film I’ve seen since “Avengers: Infinity War” that has really captivated me. It’s definitely worth a one-time, if not several-time, viewing. And do it in IMAX.