BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY – Review
If the multiplex is a rockin’, then DO come a knockin…at the ticket counter and go grab a seat. Just a few weeks ago movie audiences tapped their feet to the big concert sequences in the new version of A STAR IS BORN. And continue to flock to the flick, keeping it at the top of the box office and music charts, downloading and buying CDs (some folks still do) of the movie soundtrack. Yes, Cooper and Gaga are electric as singer/songwriters who fill concert venues (she’s had lots of real-life experience). But what’s out there for film fans still in a musical mood? How about a nostalgic look back at the story of a rock act that sold out stadiums? Not a documentary, like this past Summer’s WHITNEY, but a musical biography. Now, this has usually been a staple of TV, with recent “biopics” of Ms. Huston, her hubby Bobby, and his old group New Edition. This has been going on for decades (you could maybe fill a cable or streaming channel with the just the flicks concerning Elvis). For feature films, rock and roll has been a backdrop for satires and parodies, from THIS IS SPINAL TAP to POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING. Well, now Fox has stepped up with the story of the “real deal”, true “rock and roll” glamor gods of the 70’s and 80’s, Queen. Of course, their name in the title may make some filmgoers think that Helen Mirren stars, so to bypass any confusion the film’s title is taken from one of their most popular and enduring melodies, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.
Indeed, the story begins with a very packed arena, as the quartet make their way to the stage. Ah, not so fast, we’re quickly “flashed back” fifteen years to something of an “origin” story (rock stars are kinda’ real-life super-heroes). In 1970, twenty-something Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara (Rami Malek) slaves his days away as a baggage handler at London’s Heathrow Airport. Once he punches his time clock he rushes back to his conservative Parsi family (Mum, Dad, and sis) home, jots down some song lyric ideas, and heads out to a bar where one of his favorite local bands, Smile (could the name have been inspired by the fact that one of the members studied dentistry), is performing. While waiting in the line outside, Freddie shyly flirts with a gorgeous young woman named Mary Austin (Lucy Boyton). She admires his fashion sense and suggests that he visit her at the clothing store where she works as a sales clerk. After the concert, two of the members of Smile, Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), are stunned when their lead singer tells them that he’s out (“no future in it”). As he exits, Freddie enters, complimenting them, then belting out some songs, ending in perfect harmony with the duo. After a shaky start (darn mike stand), they become a hit on the pub circuit, while Freddie really “hits it off” with the lovely Mary. After leaving the luggage job, Freddie becomes a real creative force in the band, changing his name to Freddie Mercury, and eventually changing the band’s name to the more “out there”, subversive “Queen”. Soon they attract the attention of EMI record exec John Reid (Aidan Gillen) who signs them up for the label and sends them on a worldwide tour, coordinated by Reid’s aide, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). In the next few years, Queen becomes an international sensation. But Freddie wants to take creative chances, telling EMI head Ray Foster (Mike Myers) that their next album, appropriately titled “A Night at the Opera”, will mix rock and classical music. Foster balks at the end result (“no radio station’s gonna’ play a six-minute single!”). As Queen changes labels, Freddie’s engagement to Mary becomes strained as he struggles with his sexuality. Through squabbles, band changes including the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joeseph Mazzello), and the lure of fame, fortune, and staggering amounts of booze and drugs, Queen continues into the 1980’s. But will Freddie jump ship to another label in pursuit of a solo career? And what about that nagging cough?
This may be the story of the band Queen, but its lead singer is the film’s true focus. That “frontman” who’s really front and center is brought to enigmatic life by the phenomenal Malek in a real “movie-star-making” performance (he’s conquered TV as the star of “Mr. Robot”). Though the dental prosthetics are a slight distraction in the early sequences, Malek captures every conflicting facet of Freddie. Prior to auditioning, he’s shy and awkward, barely connecting emotionally with anyone save for Mary. Oh, but when he takes the stage, Malek projects that flamboyant charisma, shutting down all the hateful heckles and taunts with his talents. Away from the studios and arenas, Malek gives Freddie a haunted, child-like quality, a lonely lad hoping to fill the quiet with parties and indulgences. His kindred spirit seems to be Mary, the one who truly understands him. The beautiful Boyton (so great in an underrated pop music flick, SING STREET) as Ms. Austin adores this quirky, crazy-gifted guy, but knows that she cannot truly be united with him. Boyton shows us Mary’s bravery as she sets him free, but remains as his emotional “rock”. As for the rest of the band, Lee makes May an easy-going peacemaker, trying to keep things running smoothly. We also see his unbridled joy of performing, using his considerable guitar virtuosity in service of Freddie’s vision. Hardy as Taylor is more of a “grumbler” with less patience for Mr. M’s eccentricities. Yet somehow, this hard-rocker can delight in the group’s “off the wall” career directions (as long as he can afford a great car). Mazzello as the more recent member shows us Deacon’s delight to be considered a peer, while barely containing his glee that his audience-including suggestions are used. Leech as Paul is almost the “villain'” of the tale, a two-faced “gatekeeper’ keeping any other influences away from Freddie while supplying him with fresh flesh and pharmaceuticals. And there’s great comic relief from Meyers as the studio “suit” that just doesn’t “get it” along with Tom Hollander as Jim “Miami” Beach, a company “bean counter” freed from his shackles by these rock and roll rescuers.
Director Brian Singer (reportedly assisted by Dexter Fletcher) expertly captures those years of excess and kitchy camp. For a montage of highlights from the worldwide tour, he has the city names in streaming graphics styled after the opening titles of 1978’s SUPERMAN. As many rock and roll historians have said, the script by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan plays fast and loose with the timeline, injecting songs out of chronological order and adding time to the band’s “estrangement”. Plus it does fall often into biopic cliches where success no bringing happiness, but addiction. As another artist said “Mo money, more problems”. But even with those faults, the film is an exhilerating, often moving entertainment “machine”. First and foremost is the music, the incredible Queen catalog. Those who mostly associate them with the title tune (guilty) will be stunned at their many familiar hits (wow, they did that one and that one, too). One thing the film conveys more than most music (really any of the arts) bios is the effort and dizzying joy of creation. The whole “let’s try it, what the Hell” spirit of collaboration, particularly when the fellows put together “BH” in the farm/studio. The sequence’s “topper” is another terrific montage of mediocre to negative reviews of that iconic song from music critics of the era. But the emotional heart of the story, nearly blotting out seedy scenes that might have been outtakes from CRUISING, is the phenominal recreation of the 1985 Live Aid “medley”. Just as fate has dealt them a fatal “hand”, the band rallys together to spit in the eye of the Grim Reaper. The camera whips about the stadium, then cuts to several TV viewers of the compelling performance. We see that Freddie has grabbed the heart of, not only the thousands at Wembley, but millions across the globe. He’s almost declaring that, though his body may fail him, his talent is immortal. In those final minutes, we see how the power of music can bring much-needed comfort to countless souls. With Malek in command, audiences will be happily “banging their heads” once more in time to BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.
4 Out of 5