Published Oct 27, 2018Consider this: weeks before Freddie Mercury's death in 1991, Mike Myers sent over an advance screener of Wayne's World to obtain the bedridden singer's blessing for the scene where Wayne, Garth and company goofily headbang their way through "Bohemian Rhapsody" in a shitty blue hatchback. According to bandmate Brian May, Mercury loved it. Approach Bryan Singer's new film about Queen and their legendary frontman with a similar attitude: enjoy the tributary excellence, and don't get up in arms that it might diminish the singer's legacy.
Bohemian Rhapsody encompasses a considerable swath of time, from Mercury's stint as a baggage handler at Heathrow to Queen's incendiary comeback performance at Live Aid in 1985. What lies in between is a joyful and ambitious attempt to nail down the inner workings of a performer who consistently rejected any structure that tried to impose limits on his performances or personal life. It's a tall order, resulting in a grab bag of outstanding highs and frustrating lows kept elevated by the nonstop beat of the group's best-known bangers and an amazing lead performance.
Taking over the role from Sacha Baron Cohen, Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) blows it out of the water. He's haughty yet sweet, an irreverent diva who seduces thousands from stage with his chest-first, taut-muscled peacocking. He's good — really good, darling.
Unfortunately, those behind the scenes let him down. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) writes lacklustre dialogue and ticks off all the band-movie clichés that 2000's Walk Hard skewered — crotchety record execs yelling "You kids'll never amount to nothin!," melodramatic band infighting, and the "loyal woman" waiting at home.
Played by a somewhat blank Lucy Boynton, Mercury's ex-fiancée/friend Mary Austin is given truly inexplicable amounts of screen time in comparison to his male partners, and her angelic, unconditional love is weirdly contrasted with the lustful villainy of Mercury's manager/lover Paul Prenter (Downton Abbey's Allen Leech) — just one example of the film's mishandling of the singer's sexuality.
When it comes to his death, Rhapsody toes that line of not turning Freddie into the "AIDS poster boy" label he despised, with brief scenes of blood-speckled handkerchiefs and wordless doctor's visits — a tacit acknowledgment of the spectre, followed by spectacle: a jaw-dropping 20-minute recreation of the Live-Aid performance. The show must go on.
With band members Brian May and Roger Taylor consulting/producing, director Bryan Singer disappearing from set, and Dexter Fletcher (director of the upcoming Elton John biopic Rocketman) finishing off the project, the fragmented result may be a case of too many cooks. If only they had ditched the need to cover all biographical bases and focused instead on the recording studio, where the film's best scenes explore the roughshod creative process that led to the stomp-stomp-clap of "We Will Rock You" and the hilarious piecing-together of the titular six-minute rock opera in a dilapidated barn.
Let's be clear; Bohemian Rhapsody is a great watch and somehow, a very timely film. If 2018 had a superhero, they would look a lot like Freddie Mercury: a queer third-culture kid with a plush moustache, a small army of feline roommates, supremely extra behaviour, and a message of love for those living on the fringe. This is not a film for Queen purists who love obscure B-sides, but an anthem to which everyone can sing along and leave with their heads full of glimmering Mercury.
(Twentieth Century Studios)