‘Bohemian Rhapsody’: A Toothless Hagiography That Still Rocks
Rock out with your cock out, fellas. Fans of guitar-shredding, drum-pounding arena anthems awash in a four-octave vocal tsunami will positively shiver with hormonal pleasure at Bohemian Rhapsody, a headbanger’s ball of stage sashays and chin-jutting power-pouts. Just don’t expect to learn about Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello). This isn’t so much the story of Queen as it is a multi-million-dollar karaoke tribute to Zanzibar-born, Brit-raised Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), aka flamboyant frontman Freddie Mercury.
Without much character insight beyond a very PG-13 handling of his gay awakening, Malek’s delightful portrayal of the chanteur with the Bugs Bunny incisors is all golden-god posture and hagiographic self-pity. His searching eyes, drawling voice, and serpentine gesticulations show a restless, revolutionary sprit belied by a script with sweet-but-shallow characters and very little conflict. For a movie about a man notorious for his anterior overjet, this biopic is surprisingly toothless.
Imagine how Mercury himself might have wanted to be represented, if he hadn’t died of AIDS in 1991. The film seems to pride itself on positioning Mercury as a fuck-it-all visionary fearlessly blazing the path for Queen to achieve its place among the firmament of iconic rock bands. But his living-out-loud struggle comes off as oddly mannered—almost too polite. It’s a film about a risk-taker that plays it too safe in the telling.
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello
Running time: 134 min
That’s how the surviving members of Queen apparently wanted it. This band-controlled, band-approved movie has been gestating for the past decade, with stronger-willed talent such as Mercury-lookalike Sascha Baron Cohen and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan dipping their toes in the project before leaving under creative differences as the material made its circuitous route to the big screen. Let’s keep it polite, then, boys. Truth be damned. Print the legend. Or maybe even invent new ones.
It all begins as May, Taylor, Deacon, and Mercury decide to give up their career plans as, respectively, an astrophysicist, dentist, electrical engineer, and baggage handler at Heathrow, in order to pursue their pipe dream of becoming fulltime musicians. Mercury meets love-of-his-life Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), marries her, then starts messing about with boys on the side. Bit of conflict there, until they both kind of shrug and give each other a live-and-let-live license to go on with parallel romances while essentially remaining emotionally available to and supportive of each other.
Very little friction emerges among the misfit quartet, too, aside from some occasional fraternal griping, as they somehow pull brilliant melodies and lyrics out of thin air while on their inexorable rise to the top. Want to write a song that the audience can play? Let’s do a stomp-stomp-clap that becomes “We Will Rock You.” Recording-session snipes causing tension? Deacon’s fat new bass line is just the balm to soothe nerves. Perfect for “Another One Bites the Dust.”
And now we also have an admittedly a-dork-able moment with a heavily fictionalized EMI record exec repulsed at the film’s title track. “It goes on forever,” he says about what he calls a quasi-operatic dirge. “Six bloody minutes! What’s it about, anyway?” Cute. And that actor resisting the group’s Galileo Figaro pleas? Mike Myers, who enshrined that very song in his iconic scene from Wayne’s World. Mamma Mia let me go!
Put aside the whitewashing and inside-joke ribbing, though, and the movie still holds up as an unabashed celebration. The music does all the heavy lifting anyway. Queen’s soaring melodies really hit their heights, not just because of the inventive arrangements and virtuoso performances, but also due to the melodramatic lyrics: caviar and cigarettes, caught in a landslide, mud on your face, no time for losers, how long can you stand the heat. They’re rousing, invigorating, and absolutely indelible. And maybe that’s the point the surviving members want to make. Stop nosing about in our private life. Just listen to the songs.
If you want authentic vocal pyrotechnics with a gut-punch story, go see the Gaga-fied A Star Is Born. But if you want breathtaking mimicry, uncluttered by historical honesty, then this movie’s for you. Best of all is the film’s climax, an eerily spot-on recreation of Queen’s 20-minute set at Live Aid, meticulously conjuring every little butt-strut and shoulder shimmy with a scholarly focus that’s downright Talmudic. It’s killer Queen. Guaranteed to blow your mind.