Bohemian Rhapsody has had a tumultuous history in getting to the big screen. At one point, Sacha Baron Cohen was attached to play Freddie Mercury but when the dust settled it was Rami Malek who scored the coveted role with Bryan Singer directing. Then Singer was fired just before the film wrapped production due to conflicts with Malek and his own sexual assault / abuse scandal, and the movie was completed by Dexter Fletcher (although Singer retains sole directorial credit). Then the movie ran into some trouble with fans who were knocking the movie before they had even seen it, complaining about what they perceived was a whitewashing of Mercury’s flamboyant life because of what was shown in the first trailer.
That’s a lot for one movie to have to endure, but scandals aside, the movie is going to succeed or fail based on the audience reactions. Bohemian Rhapsody tells the story of the formation of the band Queen, and more specifically it tells the story of the life of lead singer Freddie Mercury. We see Freddie in 1970 as he basically insinuates himself into the band – pre-Queen – after the loss of their lead singer. The fans aren’t too happy with the replacement, but his magical voice wins them over and through perseverance and hard work, the band gets noticed by a record company exec and the rest is history.
The movie also delves into the life of Mercury, more so than it does with the other guys in the band, Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello). At one point one of the guys mentions his wife and kids … whom we never meet, so the rest of Queen is represented but this is really Mercury’s story. We see Mercury put his foot down with the head of the record label who does not want to release “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single (and it seems Mike Meyers was cast as this fictional character to make a Wayne’s World joke), we see Freddie push his band mates to create some astonishing music, we see Freddie fall madly in love with Mary Austin and then realize she’s not really what he wants even though he loves her deeply. We see Freddie fall under the spell of Paul Prenter, whom some refer to as Freddie’s Judas (or Queen’s Yoko), nearly destroying Freddie’s career and life by selling his secrets to the media. We see Freddie receive the news of his HIV-positive status and how he bravely forged ahead to perform in the Live Aid concert, a stunning scene that closes out the movie.
But this is the problem with the movie as I’ve described it – it’s more a series of vignettes than one cohesive story. We get a sense of Freddie’s relationship with the rest of the guys, who felt they were all so different but somehow were a little family that made this thing work, but it just doesn’t feel like a fully developed story. There are also some issues with how the movie presents key moments in Freddie’s life that make for drama but are historically inaccurate. The Meyers character is fictional and there’s no confirmation that anything like what was depicted in the movie ever happened – even though the living members of the band were full participants in the making of the movie. It’s a fun anecdote, but for a film that’s attempting to be biographical, it’s out of place. The Paul Prenter character is a little problematic because he’s seen as being fired by Mercury after he learns that Prenter’s basically been keeping him away from his friends and family, at which point Prenter goes to the media and sells Freddie’s secrets of homosexuality and drug abuse to the media. In actuality, Prenter was fired for going to the media with those secrets. Probably the most egregious manipulation of Freddie’s life is his HIV diagnosis. Here, the movie attempts to make you believe Freddie forged bravely on stage at Live Aid with this dark cloud hanging over him and the band whereas in real life he didn’t get the diagnosis until two years after Live Aid. I can see as that is the closing portion of the movie that they took some dramatic license with this detail but it really does a disservice to the audience who are now seeing this performance in an artificially manufactured light. As storytelling goes, the movie is not that successful.
However … there is one reason to see Bohemian Rhapsody on the big screen and that is for Rami Malek’s bravura performance as Mercury. The movie does not shy away from his sexuality or his ethnicity, as many had assumed from the trailer, and Malek embraces every aspect of Freddie Mercury, fully immersing himself into the character, getting deep into Mercury’s skin. There were aspects of Mercury that I felt when watching the movie were completely over-done, like his teeth. The prosthetic teeth Malek wore seemed very exaggerated to the point that Malek was even having an issue with them, but watching some old video of Freddie revealed the teeth and Malek’s mouth and lip movements to be startling in their accuracy. Malek manages to give us all the complexities of Mercury, from his relationship with his family to his relationship with Mary, his time with Queen, all the ups and downs in which he could often be an arrogant asshole – as a lot of brilliant people are pigeonholed – and still making him a sympathetic, flawed human being who shone brightly and burned out much too soon. Malek is the reason to see Bohemian Rhapsody.