Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Dir. Bryan Singer; Rami Malek, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Joseph Mazzello
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
“A Night at the Opera,” Queen’s 1975 monster hit of an album, was the first record my mom and her sister bought. They listened to it over and over again, so seeing Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) was a nostalgic experience for them. I, on the other hand, knew little more than the basics about Queen before seeing the film and had no nostalgic memories associated with their music. I knew their big songs but would hardly call myself a fan. However, this didn’t stop me from becoming emotional as the story progressed. While the film as a whole leaves much to be desired, it is hard to not get swept up in its big moments, whether you are a fan of Queen or not.
The film begins in London in 1970 with young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek) heading out for the night, something he does often that his traditional Zanzibarian parents disapprove of. He has rejected the name they gave him and will soon replace the family name as well, choosing to go instead by Freddie Mercury. That night, as he watches bands perform in a club, warm light flickers on his face, and his smile grows. After the show, one band’s lead singer quits, leaving Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and Brian May (Gwilym Lee) without a lead singer or bass player. Mercury half jokingly offers himself as replacement, but Taylor replies, “Not with those teeth.” In return, Mercury opens his mouth and lets out a few bars of music so impressive they cannot turn him away. From there, we are swept up along with the band, from the addition of John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) to tours in America, from disputes with executives to the creation of songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Another One Bites The Dust,” from disagreements among the band members to Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). The film is bookended by Queen’s performance at the Live Aid concert in 1985, a benefit concert and fundraising initiative for the famine in Ethiopia. While it is marketed as a biopic about Queen, the film is really about Mercury.
Bohemian Rhapsody rests almost entirely on Malek’s shoulders, a fact the film evinces in its first shot: he awakens in bed and sits up while the film’s title is displayed across his back. Malek is most well known for his role in Mr. Robot (2015-), where his character Elliot could not be more different than his Mercury. Elliot is antisocial and quiet; Mercury is… well, Freddie Mercury. He’s outrageous, loud, and flamboyant. Malek demonstrates his performative range here, inhabiting Mercury’s electric persona from the first scene, as he strides around his kitchen in a colorful bathrobe. He owns every scene in which he appears. He struts across the stage, high kicking and whipping the mike around with such force that his fellow bandmates are aghast. Soon, he dons rhinestone jackets and bedazzled leotards. A quick Google search will reveal the extent to which Malek prepared for this role: the dialect coach, the movement coach, watching the Live Aid concert 1,500 times. His preparation is evident in his every move. In one scene, he sits at his piano banging out chords, in the progress of creating what will become “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He’s nearly screaming the lyrics, just yelling whatever words come into his head. When he shouts “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all,” he stops mid-song, eyes widening as he realizes what he has said. But his eyes light up and he seems moved to his core when he recognizes the power of the words. In moments like these, we identify Mercury’s unique creativity at work.
Songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are The Champions” are so well-known, it is often hard to imagine how they came into being. But Bohemian Rhapsody reminds us how revolutionary these songs were when first created. As record executive Ray Foster (Mike Myers) repeatedly explains to the band in the film, no radio station will play a song longer than three minutes. He wants something “teenagers can bang their heads to,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not that song. The band pushes ahead anyway, recording in an old barn, mixing opera with piano and guitar solos, moving from one segment to another with little transition and bucking all preconceived standards of what music should be. The film takes us through the inspiration process bit by bit, as the lyrics solidify, as the band discusses becoming experimental and tries putting coins on the drums, as they first create the now-iconic bass intro of “Another One Bites The Dust” or the foot stomping that is necessary for “We Will Rock You.” Watching these works be created allows us to appreciate their significance and creativity all the more because we recognize the brilliance and courage that were necessary to create them. Nothing like it had ever been created before, and the film emphasizes this fact, which increases our admiration for the band and our interest in its story.
Bohemian Rhapsody does not skimp on music. Many performances are included, including Mercury’s first show with the band, montages of tours, and the Live Aid concert, among others. These performances emphasize the sweeping scope of Queen’s impact, zooming across a crowd of thousands at Wembley Stadium or focusing on close ups of screaming, singing fans. Often, views of Mercury are presented as if from the crowd, looking up at him. It sometimes feels as if you are attending the concert yourself, and the energy and power of the music is palpable. The filmmaking style alternates between wide shots of cheering fans and extreme close ups: a tracking shot along a microphone, a close-up on the rings a stage hand is wearing. These choices demonstrate the nitty gritty, technical aspects of the band’s performances as well as their broader impacts.
But while the more bombastic scenes are electric, some of the quieter scenes do not land as much of a punch. Malek makes Bohemian Rhapsody worth seeing, but the rest of the film leaves much to be desired. There is simply too much material to work with here — between each of the band members’ unique lives and the saga of the group as a whole — and, as such, the plot feels superficial. The formation of the band, for example, is (inaccurately) clean and smooth. Within half an hour of the film’s beginning, Queen is touring together across America. Much is left out and leaves the viewer wanting more. Furthermore, the film does not explore the other band members’ backgrounds. Without it, the film’s quieter, character-driven scenes lack the necessary history to make them impactful. The film focuses mainly on Mercury, but his character is not developed enough, either. The film doesn’t delve into his background, upbringing, or what it was like to come out as gay in the 1970s. His sexuality is limited, really, to one conversation with Austin and a few raucous parties, which his band mates ridicule as “the wrong crowd.” I understand that the film wanted to retain its PG-13 rating, but a huge part of Mercury’s identity is glossed over. Hopefully, these elements could be included in a future documentary about Mercury because that story is not sufficiently told here.
Bohemian Rhapsody is successful in its wild, thundering moments but less so in its quiet, character-building scenes. While the film obviously had to be kept to a reasonable runtime, there is much more that could have been examined. The film’s production was a bit messy; Fox fired Bryan Singer for failure to show up on set, and uncredited director Dexter Fletcher was then chosen to step in. Since Singer was so often absent, cinematographer Thomas Newton Sigel even took over directing on certain days. Perhaps this chaos is the cause of the film’s failures. Yet, Malek’s magnetic performance makes the film worth watching and, more than that, will make you wish his character were still alive to perform.
Bonus: click here for the cutest rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” ever.