Bryan Singer’s 2018 musical biopic charts the life and career of one of the greatest vocalists of all time, looking at how Zanzibar-born Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek) became the rock icon Freddie Mercury, starting with him joining Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) to form Queen and then going on to explore the genesis of some of their greatest hits, paying particular attention to Freddie’s relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the discovery of his true sexuality, and the tensions that arose between the band members due to Freddie’s increasingly erratic behaviour, culminating in his AIDS diagnosis and the group’s monumental 1985 Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium.
Starting off with the man himself, Rami Malek excels in his role of the legendary singer as he wholeheartedly throws himself into the part and demonstrates the exuberant, charismatic showmanship of Freddie’s stage performances while also occasionally showing him as being quite shy and awkward, dropping the diva persona from time to time, as well as acting like an entitled ass for a lot of the second half without ever being annoying or unlikable. In his eyes and facial expressions, we see the joy and exhilaration that he feels while performing and in the moments when he faces crisis, we also see torment and uncertainty, resulting in a commanding, multi-layered and powerful performance.
In looking at Malek’s singing abilities, it’s actually hard to judge because the main singing voice that we hear in the film is apparently a mix of Malek, Mercury and Canadian singer Marc Martel, but in the moments when we seem to hear Malek sing, he sounds enough like Freddie Mercury and his singing is very good – worthy of the role!
Then there’s Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton who plays Freddie’s initial love interest/friend Mary Austin; Boynton is continually sweet and definitely likeable as Mary, always being that supportive figure as she helps Freddie discover who he is and saves him from the pit of despair and self destructiveness that he eventually finds himself in, but other than that, her characterisation is far too thin as she’s hurriedly introduced into the film and is quickly established as “the girlfriend”, remaining too much of a blank slate throughout. I mean, by the end, all we really learn about her is that she works in a clothing store, has a deaf father and often frequents rock concerts!
As for the rest of the band, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello all provide solid support as Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon (Gwilym Lee sure is the spitting image of Brian May) and all give strong performances and their group chemistry is spot on, even though their individual characters aren’t as fleshed out as Malek’s Mercury by a long shot; the film also seems to occasionally make fun of the fact that John Deacon is often the overlooked member of Queen – making a joke when Freddie doesn’t even remember what he did before the band started! And rounding off the rest of the cast, Tom Hollander is a nice addition as the band’s supportive manager Jim “Miami” Beach, Allen Leech is hissably devilish as the snarky “hanger on” Paul Prenter, and a hardly recognisable Mike Myers provides most of the comic relief as argumentative studio boss Ray Foster, managing to refrain from some Wayne’s World head banging when the pivotal song is played!
Bohemian Rhapsody is at its best during its musical sequences, bringing some unabashed delight when it shows the origin of some of the band’s greatest hits – from the stomping and clapping of “We Will Rock You” to the unmistakable bass opening of “Another One Bites the Dust”. It doesn’t make the mistake of just cramming Queen songs in left, right and centre and watching Malek and the band perform some of the hits is an entertaining experience, the highlight being the grand finale set at Wembley Stadium. This closing extravaganza does very well in capturing the emotions of the performers and the audience, seeing the joy that they feel in performing/singing along and this finale will certainly put smiles on many faces – as it did mine.
But despite the commited performances and well staged musical sequences, Bohemian Rhapsody is otherwise a flawed film because the story being told isn’t as strong or as innovative as it could have been, the dialogue isn’t quite right, and the whole thing ends up being too pedestrian and formulaic: a paint-by-numbers biopic.
The fìlm actually gets off to a wonky start because the opening is rushed; within the first fifteen minutes, the band have already formed, Freddie and Mary have gotten quickly acquainted, and the group is already straight at work on their album. The problem with this is that the story doesn’t spend enough time properly developing the characters at the start and we’re swept up into the story without letting us get to know what they’re all about and this results in thin characterisation for the duration of the feature. And while there was hope from people like Brian May and Roger Taylor that this film would be about all of Queen and not just Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody leans more towards the lead singer and leaves the rest of the group relatively underdeveloped.
It also doesn’t help that the dialogue doesn’t hit the ear properly – too many things that come out of the characters’ mouths are predictable “trailer worthy” lines such as “You’re a legend, Fred” – and the main narrative follows a very formulaic path; you have the early days, the initial trouble getting off the ground, the growing fame, the inevitable downturn when the protagonist tries to shake some personal demons, the fallout between characters, and finally the reconciliation followed by a big motivational speech and grand finale. I will admit that Bohemian Rhapsody is never boring but despite its best intentions, the film ends up as your average musical biopic, not bringing anything particularly exciting or innovative to the well trodden genre.
And as hinted at before, the film seems to mix actual Queen recordings with other voices, including that of star Rami Malek, but the problem with this is that it makes everything quite disjointed; lip-synching is far too obvious in places and hearing the discombobulating mesh of voices makes you wish that they’d commited to either an original cast recording or a single dubbed voice throughout the whole film because at times, it’s too frustrating to work out whether it’s actually Malek singing or not.