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They Will Rock Us

Rami Malek
Rami Malek
20th Century Fox
 134 Minutes
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton   
Bohemian Rhapsody

Any biography captures the “what” about a famous person—the timeline and list of his or her accomplishments. Good biographies capture the “why” and “how”—what it is about that person that led to those accomplishments. Judged by that standard, Bohemian Rhapsody, the new film about the rock band Queen and its iconic lead singer Freddie Mercury, does an excellent job of capturing Mercury’s amazing stage presence and the band’s obsession with detail that led to the creation of many of the best rock standards of all time. As far as revealing what type of person Mercury was and how he dealt with his sexuality and the substance demons that plagued him, the movie is considerably less successful and considerably less accurate.


Bohemian Rhapsody begins with the band preparing for what would become their signature performance, their 22-minute set at the Live Aid concert in 1985. From there, the movie flashes back to 1970, where recent college grad Farrookh Bulsara (Rami Malek) works as a baggage handler at Heathrow while calling himself Freddie and dreaming of something better in his life. That something better falls into place rather conveniently when he attends a pub performance by a struggling band called Smile. After the show, however, the band isn’t smiling very much when its lead singer quits. Into the breach steps Freddie, who, despite his prominent overbite, impresses the remaining band members, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), with his amazing vocals. That same night, Freddie meets the other most significant person in his life, future girlfriend Mary (Lucy Boynton).


Freddie, who soon adopts the stage name of Freddie Mercury, joins the band, which also picks up a new bass player, Roger Deacon (Joseph Mazzello). After an inauspicious beginning, however, Freddie soon hits his stride, and the rest, as they say, is history. At Freddie’s suggestion, the band changes its name to Queen and then takes a big gamble, sinking virtually all the members’ money (including what they get by selling the van they use to travel to gigs) into recording a demo album. The album attracts the attention of veteran manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen), who takes on the band, which soon begins touring internationally and creating its famous repertoire.


As the band becomes more famous, Freddie begins to explore the bisexual side of his nature, and he enters into a relationship with Reid’s assistant, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). This relationship eventually leads to the breakup of his relationship with Mary, although the two remain friendly. It also puts a strain on Freddie’s relationship with the other band members, as Paul encourages Freddie’s increasingly restless, hedonistic lifestyle at a time when the other band members are trying to settle down. Eventually, Paul winds up in near complete control of Freddie’s life and career, having orchestrated the firing of John Reid and ultimately encouraging Freddie to start a solo career.


Those familiar with the history of Queen and Freddie Mercury might note, even from this fairly brief synopsis of the plot of Bohemian Rhapsody, that the film has taken considerable liberties with the truth. For starters, Mercury didn’t just walk up and audition in the parking lot for a spot in the band; he already knew the May and Taylor quite well and had jammed with them in the past. Nor did the band break up and reunite just to perform at the Live Aid concert. Most tellingly, Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until after the concert and, in fact, continued to tour with the band for a couple of years longer.


Of course, movie biographies are generally artistic creations and not attempts at documentary realism, so that fudging the facts of Mercury’s life and the band’s career aren’t necessarily bad. However, almost all of these fictionalizations seem intended solely to shoehorn the movie into a very stereotypical and clichéd storyline. In many ways, Bohemian Rhapsody seems more artificial that the recent A Star Is Born, an entirely fictional work. The audience doesn’t need to know Mercury’s life story to figure out what’s going to happen next, merely a familiarity with genre films, right down to Mercury’s discovery that he’s coughing up blood, practically on cue.


The real Freddie Mercury was a fascinatingly complex character in regard to his sexuality, his ethnicity, and his musical creativity. The movie provides almost no answers, other than to show Rami Malek in a variety of flashy outfits, including one party scene that seems straight out of Alice in Wonderland. As for the rest of the band, they have almost no personality beyond their musical talent, instead simply alternating between annoyance and acceptance of Freddie’s whims and excesses.


As a musical biography, Bohemian Rhapsody is a disappointment. Yet it’s still very watchable and even electrifying at times, especially in its recreation of the Live Aid concert. Director Bryan Singer (who was fired during filming and replaced by an uncredited Dexter Fletcher, now doing his own musical biography of Elton John, Rocketman) blends archival footage, CGI, and live action shots to convince the audience that Rami Malek and the other cast members are actually performing in a sold-out Wembley Stadium. Malek’s physical performance is stunning; he captures Mercury’s energy brilliantly, showing all of the energy and charisma throughout the singer’s career. Given any sort of help from the script, Malek could have been in line for an Oscar nomination for the role.


Malek and the movie also get ample help from the real Freddie Mercury and his bandmates. The soundtrack includes many of Queen’s greatest hits, sometimes in the background, but at other times shown in concert scenes. For his “singing” numbers, Malek recorded Mercury’s vocals, which were then blended with the voice of an acclaimed Mercury cover band lead singer. Malek and the others then lip-synched the songs. The mimicry is flawless, and the vocals sound authentic. The overall effect is like being front row at a Queen concert. Also, although the film’s attempts at understanding the inner Freddie Mercury fall short, Bohemian Rhapsody offers considerable insight into just what made Queen’s music so memorable. The film devotes considerable time to the genesis of the title song and also shows how the band members created some of their other memorable hits like “We Will Rock You” (as shown in the clip below).


Diehard Queen fans or those who primarily want to recreate the musical experience will love Bohemian Rhapsody, but those of us who want a bit more substantial story will feel deprived. Still, it’s almost impossible for music fans not to be moved by the Live Aid recreation and Malek’s uncannily accurate performance in general. Freddie Mercury is gone, but Rami Malek and Bohemian Rhapsody deserve a gold record of sorts for bringing him back for two hours.

In this clip, the classic song "We Will Rock You" comes together.

Read other reviews of Bohemian Rhapsody: 

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) on IMDb