2018, PG-13, 134 min. Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Allen Leech, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 2, 2018
Queen was one of the greatest rock bands ever. A band touched by such peerless genius that their worst album, 1982’s Hot Space, closes with the timeless “Under Pressure.” An effortless mix of prog, pop, cabaret, metal, jazz, vaudeville, opera, disco, and anything else they felt like, they were earnest and cheeky at the same time. What would have been schmaltz in anyone else’s hands was epic in theirs.
What a shame, then, that the long-gestating biopic of the band – or rather, of lead singer Freddie Mercury’s role in their success – is so prosaic. Nominally directed by Bryan Singer (any objections to be filed with the Directors Guild of America), it's a fascinating story told by the rote conventions of the musical biopic: Mercury is the gifted young visionary whose family doesn’t understand him, who sends a workmanlike rock band to the heights, suffers his own ego-driven fall, and then reunites with his comrades for a swan song performance.
Bohemian Rhapsody does that all by cherry-picking events from across the life of Mercury (né Farrokh Bulsara), culminating in their era-defining performance at Live Aid. Queen enthusiasts will probably choke on some of the egregious sins against chronology and raw facts committed to cram the real story into the format. However, where the script succeeds is in the most complicated part of Mercury: his approach to love. He loved passionately, but not possessively, polyamorous before that was even a term. When people can understand that, as in the case of his wife Mary (Boynton) and partner Jim Hutton (McCusker), it can be frustrating for them; When someone tries to own him, such as manager Paul Prenter (Leech), that's when the world and his relationships fall apart.
Yet the rest is just a clumsily compiled greatest hits, and so where does the fault lie? With Singer? With Dexter Fletcher, the workmanlike British director of middling fare like Eddie the Eagle, who subbed in for Singer during a reportedly contentious shoot? Is it scriptwriter Anthony McCarten, whose scattershot attempts to cover 15 years of Mercury's life covers so much ground that it gives details on little?
Whoever it is, it's definitely not the cast. Set aside the trademark buck teeth and mustache, and Malek (Buster's Mal Heart, Papillon) catches the glittering contradictions of Mercury, a hedonist with a huge heart, a preening peacock who endeared himself to the world by being so honest. That casting success goes all through the members of Queen: Hardy as drummer and doe-eyed sex symbol Roger Taylor; Mazzello as John Deacon, the world-class bassist who hid behind a quiet everyman persona; and especially Lee as Brian May, the astrophysicist rock god. The dynamics between them may fall into rock biopic occasionally (Deacon casually tossing out the bassline for "Another One Bites the Dust" during a band tiff), but it's the closest you'll ever get to seeing one of the most perfectly prolific bands in history. The closing re-enactment of almost all of their 20-minute Live Aid set may be Queen drag, but it's all you could ever wish for, darlings.