There are two ways to look at Bohemian Rhapsody, the new biopic about the legendary Freddie Mercury. The first would be to approach it the wrong way, which is to consider it an in-depth depiction of the man himself, and the second is to see it as a fable. The title itself, as described by his band Queen, signifies an epic poem, and with that in mind the film sets out to capture the essence of the legend, not the man.
And so it is, a larger-than-life big-screen spectacle that leaps off the screen and smacks you in the face with its energy. In the 27 years since Mercury’s passing, his legacy has soared to astronomical heights. Widely considered to be the greatest frontman of all time, his legend continues to surpass his reality and with the approval of his former bandmates, Bohemian Rhapsody romanticises his years from joining the band to the iconic Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium.
Mr Robot‘s Rami Malek stars as Mercury to unexpected effect. Known for his typically stagnant demeanour and lack of expression, Malek transforms the moment those massive dentures are shoved in his mouth (a physical attribute of Mercury’s due to having been born with four extra teeth) and as though channelling the late singer he parades around the screen as if possessed. At times the resemblance is uncanny, however the performance itself does lack substance at times. It is fortunate that the majority of the film is spent in rock-mode because most of the dramatic stuff in between songs plays out in a kitschy and contrived manner. Malek struggles to maintain Mercury’s perpetual charisma when not on stage and these moments feel more like a caricature; I’d argue Malek’s performance is less of an embodiment and more of a strong impersonation. But don’t feel dismayed, because the film is more concerned about the great showman and thrusts his rockstar persona at us with great force… and what a delight it is!
The supporting cast is excellent and possibly not given their due credit in the shadow of Malek’s Mercury. Gwilym Lee (Midsomer Murders), Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse) and Joseph Mazzello (Jurassic Park) star as the other members of Queen; Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, respectively. Their likeness to their real life counterparts is uncanny and their dynamic on screen is strong. Their collective performances bind those dramatic moments together where Malek’s presence can come across as forced, and they bring levity to off-stage moments.
In addition, other players include Aidan Gillen as their first manager, Tom Hollander as their lawyer turned manager and Lucy Boynton as Mercury’s wife and life-long best friend. Mike Myers also appears as Ray Foster, a fictitious record executive who passed on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” His appearance in the film feels quite disingenuous and does contribute to the seemingly endless inaccuracies of the Queen story. However, his role is something of a tongue-in-cheek indulgence and a cheeky wink to those who are savvy enough to understand the reference. Of course, Myers was responsible for putting the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” back to number one on the charts in 1992 thanks to his movie Wayne’s World. And as if having him appear in the film isn’t enough of a nod to that moment, his character even implies that the song itself wasn’t the type of tune teenage friends would listen and bang their heads to in the car… a tactless moment, to be sure, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t put a smile on my face.
As mentioned, the film is historically inaccurate and fabricates a lot of well-known moments of Mercury’s time with Queen. How he joined the band, when he discovered his illness and the band’s eventual split are but some of the fabrications and creative liberties taken, and so I will remind readers to remember those two aforementioned ways of approaching this film. Watch it as a spectacle – and as a fairytale account of a bigger than life star – and you will experience an absorbing and mesmerising rock opera. And for what it’s worth, the truth of the film lies in its recreations of famous live performances. Malek shines when he’s strutting his stuff on stage, and when the band is performing in front of thousands of adoring fans, it is a sight to behold.
Given Mercury’s tragic passing from aids, you would be right to expect a strong emotional charge from the film, but that doesn’t exist. There are no heart-wrenching moments that have you reaching for a tissue, and it doesn’t leave you sitting in a dark cinema praying for the house lights to stay down until you’ve composed yourself. Instead, it ends on a high, and drives home the whole point of the film: this is a celebration and a glorious rock and roll odyssey. Freddie Mercury is an undying legend and Bohemian Rhapsody is an ode to what he represents. Do yourself a favour and watch it the right way, because to approach it wrong is to view it cynically and miss the entire message.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ opened in Australian cinemas on November 1st and in the US on November 2nd.