For fans of Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is an exhilarating experience

 By Jonathan Shuping

October 31, 2018

The opening 20th Century Fox fanfare plays out not with the standard horns but an electric guitar making it apparent from the very beginning that Bohemian Rhapsody is Bryan Singer’s love letter to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not a tragedy but a triumph. (To enhance your reading experience, and to feel the vibe of the movie, play the songs below while reading this review.)

Gwilym Lee as Brian May and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. Photo: Alex Bailey for 20th Century Fox

“Another One Bites the Dust”

Despite reported troubles on-set and Singer ultimately being replaced by Dexter Fletcher to finish the final few days of shooting, the movie never feels disjointed or lacking of a distinct vision. The script from Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) hits plenty of humorous high notes, including some cheeky fun scenes with Mike Myers (as Ray Foster, EMI executive) in which he winkingly declares that no young people will ever headbang in their car to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (In fact, the song was met with lukewarm critical reception and it wasn’t until its Wayne’s World revival the year after Mercury died that it became the cultural touchstone that it is today.) Bohemian Rhapsody is a rockin’ rollercoaster ride through Queen’s greatest hits beginning with the formation of the band and climaxing with their unforgettable set at the 1985 Live Aid concert at London’s Wembley Stadium.  

“Radio Ga Ga”

The story also never strays too far from the conventions of music biopics like Ray or Walk the Line. There’s the typical meteoric rise to stardom followed by a fall from grace/poor decisions/lessons learned and concluding with an enlightened return to glory and/or death. It’s not a bad formula; it’s just been done many times before. But this time it’s Queen-flavored so your affinity for the band may determine your fondness for the film.

“Under Pressure”

Band members Brian May and Roger Taylor served as consultants on the film so you’re basically getting no more than they will allow you to see and, while the film may not deliver the behind-closed-doors, under-the-skin dramatics that some viewers may crave, there’s still a spectacular story to be told. Rock bios can tend to to heap all the credit (and the blame) on one band member, usually the demonstrative frontman, but Bohemian Rhapsody gives each musician his due, even going so far as to show Mercury’s realization as his solo career struggles that no one has total success alone and collaboration breeds genius. There’s also the band’s uncompromising adaptation from early ‘70s rock to the popularity of late ‘70s disco, Freddie’s reconciliation with his own sexuality, his disapproving father and the rifts between Freddie’s flamboyance and their family’s traditional Zanzibari heritage and, of course, his HIV diagnosis.

“We Will Rock You”

By the time the movie culminates in the extended Live Aid concert scene, there is so much emotional firepower locked and loaded that the band’s epic performance is a nearly overwhelming, cathartic release. It’s not just in the killer Queen music or Rami Malek’s bombastic physical impersonation. It’s the connection between the band and the enormous stadium audience. You’ve probably experienced it before at a concert or other event; thousands of people all singing the same song in unison, a singular voice of euphoric adoration. There’s something powerful and special about those moments and it’s a phenomenon that Freddie relished.  

“Who Wants to Live Forever”

Still, when the credits roll Freddie Mercury is just as mysterious and mystical as ever. This reviewer happens to be okay with that because maybe musical legends who died way too soon are just unknowable (see: Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur). Perhaps that’s as it should be. These are iconic, transcendental spirits whose true selves are simply unfathomable and not easily portrayed.

“Somebody to Love

Having said that, the one standout performance is that of Rami Malek, whose achievement is sure to garner attention from the Academy at nomination time. He seems to eerily channel Freddie Mercury from beyond the grave, especially where you would least expect him to be able to: on stage. Make no mistake, in making a movie about a band like Queen, it’s not a Joaquin Phoenix/Johnny Cash situation. Freddie Mercury had a voice so dynamic and recognizable that it would be virtually impossible to replicate it and yet to have Malek, a capable singer, simply lip sync would sort of cheapen the experience too. To accomplish this cinematic miracle, the filmmakers expertly mixed a combination of the vocals of Malek and Freddie Mercury imitator Marc Martel along with audio stems from Queen recordings. With varied note endings and inflections, the result gives the music a refreshingly novel feel without losing the vintage essence of Mercury.   

“The Show Must Go On”

In the end, one is left to wonder: is the movie great on its own merit or is the music so phenomenal it elevates the film to greatness? There’s nothing overly risqué or daring about the film, but if you’re a fan of Queen, you’ll be hard-pressed to find two hours in the theater this fall that are more exhilarating than Bohemian Rhapsody.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

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