This hugely enjoyable biopic of Freddie Mercury and his band Queen features a wonderful lead performance from Rami Malek (of Mr Robot fame). Without him Bohemian Rhapsody would be a breezy musical ride through Queen’s back catalogue, following them from early 1970s glam rock beginnings to their global coronation at Live Aid in 1984.
The opening Queen-ified Twentieth-Century Fox fanfare sets the film’s tongue-in-cheeky tone. Fact and fiction blur as momentous events in the band’s career and Freddie’s life are reduced to amusing one-liners. Bohemian Rhapsody skates over the surface of Mercury’s private life but still manages to pack in two love stories and a darker one of hedonism and betrayal.
Above all, we are treated to the mostly fantastic original music. With guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor on board as Musical Producers, the cinema sound quality is loud, proud and crystal clear. We watch amusing dramatizations of the genesis of hits like We Will Rock You, Another One Bites the Dust and Bohemian Rhapsody itself, which, at first listen, did not wow the critics. “It’s six bloody minutes!” splutters (fictional) EMI exec Ray Foster (Mike Myers in a scene-stealing cameo). “What on earth is it about? Scaramouche? Galileo? Beelzebub? And that Ismallah business?” What EMI is really looking for is “a song teenagers can bang their heads to in a car”.
Queen are shown pushing musical boundaries and trying to mix genres at a time when rock and pop didn’t really do opera or disco. The band also poke fun at gender stereotypes in their video for I Want to Break Free, which, ridiculously, was banned in America – presumably because it made its straight-laced moral guardians feel uncomfortable seeing Roger Taylor dressed as a schoolgirl. Freddie: “they’re puritans in public and perverts in private.”
Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek shares something of Mercury’s exotic charisma. He has big expressive brown eyes, angular cheekbones and the rock star’s strut. At first Malek’s false front teeth look a bit Dick Emery comedy vicarish, but he grows into them, just as he grows into the part the longer he’s on screen. Malek obviously did his YouTube homework, to the point that he often seems to be channeling Freddie’s camp bravado and waspish wit.
When we first meet buck-toothed Farrokh Bulsara he is working as a baggage-handler at Heathrow Airport, on the look-out for something more than the casual racism he attracts from his co-workers. He goes to see a band called Spice, whose singer has just quit. “Then you’ll need a new one,” says Farrokh, breaking into song, and leaving them slack-jawed with amazement. “I was born with 4 extra incisors,” he tells his bandmates, “more teeth means more range.”
Transforming himself into Freddie Mercury doesn’t go down well with his father, who warns him “you can’t get anywhere pretending to be someone that you’re not.” His sexuality remains under wraps, as he proposes to his girlfriend, Mary (Lucy Boynton), but she soon states the bleedin’ obvious: “Freddie, you’re gay”.
New slimy personal manager Paul (Allen Leech) leads him astray and soon Freddie is burning the candle at both ends (“the glow is so divine!”). Falling out with Mary and the band, he embraces the excesses of early 1980s partying with (gay) abandon: “Shake the freak tree and invite anyone who drops to the ground – dwarves, giants … and priests. We’re going to need to confess.”
Bohemian Rhapsody had a troubled history – original director Bryan Singer was fired and Sacha Baron Cohen, cast to play Freddie, also left following ‘creative differences’. With them on board it could have been a much darker and more realistic biopic. But the film has camp silliness and rakish charm; it ends up being enormous fun, much like Freddie himself.