Review: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Sings to the Faithful

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Rami Malek gives a vivid, full-throttle performance as Queen singer Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, which pushes the film above the trappings of a routine, authorized musical biopic.

And that’s really saying something, since I detested the band’s music during its heyday, when their most popular songs swarmed the radio airwaves, to my utter disbelief. Over the years, their popularity wearied my soul, yet in more recent times, my youthful disdain has slowly transformed into begrudging respect for their ambition and accomplishments.

Bryan Singer’s direction plays a big role in that, even though Dexter Fletcher helmed the final weeks of shooting and oversaw the entire post-production process after Singer was relieved of his duties by distributor 20th Century Fox. Bohemian Rhapsody was authorized by the surviving band members, and it’s clearly intended for mainstream consumption, with the sharper edges rounded off; the surviving band members are treated quite considerately, with no glaring faults, and Mercury’s sexuality is tamped down to a low murmur.

Popular reaction has been quite positive and word of mouth must be good; as of this writing, the film has grossed more than $286 million worldwide. At the screening I attended this past Friday, the auditorium filled up more than I would have expected for a film that opened the previous week, especially for its late-afternoon time slot.

Still, even though the film avoids any explicit physical depictions, the mere sight of Mercury kissing another man prompted one middle-aged woman in the audience to react in disapproving shock, as though she had no idea that Mercury was gay! Well, maybe that’s a possibility, but more likely she was shocked that his sexual orientation would be acknowledged and portrayed in a (mostly) positive manner.

Indeed, Bohemian Rhapsody is very much a straightforward biography of Mercury, with the surviving members of Queen reduced to supporting players. For what it is, the script is cleverly written by Anthony McCarten, with Peter Morgan credited with McCarten for the story. They are both experienced writers of screen biographies; McCarten most recently penned Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything.

Rami Malek is skillfully made up and costumed to look more like Mercury, and his background as an Egyptian-American raised in Los Angeles gives him some common ground with Farrokh Bulsara, born in Zanzibar and raised there and in India before his family moved to England when he was a teenager.

Best known for his lead role in the USA Network series Mr. Robot, which is also where I first became acquainted with his talents, Malek draws from more than ten years of experience as a screen actor to embody fully the musical genius that was Freddie Mercury, a man who was fully comfortable in his own skin and happy to receive attention. As depicted in the film, he believes he was made to be a performer and Malek exudes that effusive, outrageous, magnetic, compelling personality.

The other members are all performed persuasively by Gwilym Lee (as Brian May), Ben Hardy (as Roger Taylor) and Joe Mazzello (as John Deacon), with the always reliable and wonderful to watch Aiden Gillen (as manager John Reid) and Tom Hollander (as accountant turned manager Jim Beach). Allen Leech is the only real villain in the piece, Paul Prenter, portrayed as a lying toady who became Mercury’s companion but only looked out for his own selfish interests. Mike Myers amusingly plays mystified record company exec Ray Foster, who opposes the band’s growing ambitions.

The film concludes with a recreation of the band’s celebrated performance at Live Aid in 1985, a truly magical sequence that deserves to be highly lauded. I can’t comment on its authenticity, though it’s a stunningly enveloping set that is far more emotionally involving than any superhero-movie action sequence of the same approximate 20-minute or so length. It’s a great ending to a pretty satisfying experience.

Bohemian Rhapsody is now playing in theaters throughout Dallas.

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