In many ways, Bohemian Rhapsody could be your standard bio-pic. It starts late in the subject’s life, then flashes back to the beginning. For the next two-plus hours we see why the subject was worthy of the biography, until we complete the circle at the film’s starting point. Two examples of exceptional bio-pics that use this formula – each completely different in feel – are Yankee Doodle Dandy and Lawrence of Arabia. Both James Cagney and Peter O’Toole were nominated for Best Actor Oscars for their respective roles, though only Cagney won. And there are plenty lesser examples, some which hardly rise above the level of a lesser TV movie. Bohemian Rhapsody could have suffered that fate, but for two things: the operatic majesty of Queen’s music, and a positively stunning embodiment of Freddie Mercury by Rami Malek. If there’s any justice, he’ll also follow Cagney and O’Toole to an Oscar nomination.
The frame for the story is the huge Live-Aid rock concert that filled Wembley Stadium in London (along with John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia) on Saturday, July 13, 1985. Growing out of Bob Geldorf’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” all-star recording to raise funds to alleviate a horrific famine in Ethiopia, Live Aid featured a who’s who of the rock world at that time. Acts performing included U2, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Madonna, Led Zepplin, and Phil Collins performed early at Wembley, then jumped on the Concorde, flew to the States, and performed at the Philadelphia venue. Around the world, the concert was watched by an estimated 1.9 billion people. Each performer got a twenty minute set, and the set voted best of all the performances was the one by Queen.
And it almost didn’t happen.
Bohemian begins with the camera giving Freddie’s view, leaving his London mansion (and his many cats), traveling to Wembley, and walking to the entrance of the stage, before the movie sweeps back fifteen years to when Freddie was still Farrokh Bulsara. He’d been born on the island of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) into a Parsi family: Indians from the Bombay region who practiced the Zoroastrian religion. Farrokh was educated at a boarding school in Mumbai (where he began calling himself Freddie), but in the mid-1960s the family had to flee Zanzibar because of a revolution against its Arab rulers by native Africans. The conflict led to thousands of deaths. Freddie’s family settled in London, a much safer location, though Freddie felt the prejudices that simmered in England. He’d often be called “Paki,” short for Muslim Pakistanis, which was an extra insult through ignorance of his heritage. The movie correctly shows Freddie at his early job as a Heathrow Airport baggage handler, though it ignores his early work with short-lived bands. The script by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) compresses the story in a few ways – more on that later.
Soon Freddie has two meetings that change his life. The first is with Brian May and Roger Taylor (Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy, respectively) who had a band at that time called Smile, a small joke since Taylor was studying to be a dentist. (The group could also have been called “Star” since May was studying astrophysics. He’d eventually get his degree following his career with Queen and worked with NASA on a project; He has an asteroid named after him.) After a gig, Smile’s lead singer tells May and Taylor he’s going to a different band. Freddie finds May and Taylor in the venue’s parking lot, and when he discovers what’s happened he offers to be their singer. May and Taylor push him away – understandably – until Freddie does one of their songs a capella. Both May and Taylor were producers for Bohemian, so it might have happened that way. After the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazello), the band is rechristened Queen by Freddie, who also designed Queen’s logo.
The second meeting gives the film its heart. Freddie was still an unknown when he met the love of his life, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Malek and Boynton play their scenes together with a heartbreaking innocence, even as their complicated relationship leads to their separation after Freddie discovers his homosexuality. While Mary wasn’t involved in making Bohemian, the surviving band members helped Boynton with her portrayal so that it rings true.
Malek’s performance takes up the majority of the oxygen. With such a huge central character, the rest of the cast makes their presence felt through subtle and nuanced acting. Outside of the band, Aidan Gillen stands out as John Reid, the producer who helped guide Queen from unknowns to superstar status, and there’s a delightful performance by Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, the group’s lawyer and later manager.
There’s no way they can match Malek, of course. As Freddie on stage, or performing for others around him, Malek has Freddie’s strut and outrageous self-confidence nailed. Yet he also handles the needy, sad, and lonely Freddie who has trouble functioning when not performing.
What may be the movie’s biggest benefit is to introduce a new generation to the Queen repertoire. A large section of the film is dedicated to the production of the album “A Night At The Opera” with its quintessential track Bohemian Rhapsody. It also details the reaction of EMI when faced with a six-minute operatic rock song that Freddie wants to release as a single. Ray Foster, their main man at the label, dismisses it because “No teens will drive around beating their heads to Bohemian Rhapsody.” The kicker is that under heavy makeup, the actor doing the role is Wayne himself, Mike Myers. But sitting through the movie you are struck by how wonderful the other songs are, and how well they’ve stood up after thirty or forty years.
The production faced several challenges. Director Bryan Singer departed before the film was finished after being called out with multiple sexual assault allegations. Actor and director Dexter Fletcher was brought in to finish the film, though Singer’s name remains on the credits. There was also negative press about how Freddie’s sexuality was portrayed, and that his AIDS diagnosis was moved to before the Live Aid concert when it actually happened two years later. But with the construction of the film, it would have been even worse to simply leave the AIDS diagnosis to a card at the end. It adds urgency to the climatic performance at Wembley.
What you’re faced with, beneath the stage performer, is Freddie Mercury’s humanity.
There were several times I teared up watching the film. Those tears are the best review I could give Bohemian Rhapsody.