This tame Queen biopic may well rock you, but it’s unlikely to shock you.
The afterlife has rarely been quiet for Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who died young in 1991 after a flurry of creativity. First came Wayne’s World, with Mike Myers head-banging to Queen’s 1975 hit Bohemian Rhapsody. Then came a massive tribute concert later in 1992 and a globetrotting stage musical, We Will Rock You in the 2000s. Now, 27 years on, comes the authorized movie biopic to push the Freddie Mercury legend even further into the realm of the unreal.
Bohemian Rhapsody is as brash, loud and mask-wearing as Mercury at his most playful. Another movie would try to get behind that mask—or play with the idea of it—but this does neither. Instead, it grabs the legend by the neck and gallops recklessly with it, climaxing in a wholesale extended re-creation of one of the most famous rock gigs of all time, Queen at Live Aid. Modest and inquiring it is not.
It boasts a film-stealing, possessed performance by Rami Malek, who pouts, struts and quips as Mercury, turning the rest of the cast into bit players. The energy of Malek’s imitation helps to bind what amounts to a series of gossipy but harmless rock-world anecdotes into something vaguely coherent. The story starts and ends with Queen playing Live Aid at Wembley in July 1985. In between, we see how Farrokh Bulsara, born in Zanzibar, became Freddie Mercury and helped to transform a student band into a stadium-rock behemoth.
The movie, though catchy and often seductive, is an act of brazen myth-making. Facts and chronology are tossed aside in favor of a messianic storyline that sees their 20-minute Live Aid performance serve as Mercury’s death, resurrection and ascension. Much is left out, or fiddled with. It’s unlikely that Mercury knew he was HIV positive in 1985, but here he reveals it to the band while rehearsing for Wembley. That’s a major leap of imagination for the sake of a neat and inspiring movie moment: Guitarist Brian May said in 1991 that the band were only told of his illness “a few months” before Mercury’s death. The film also suggests that Queen hesitated before agreeing to Live Aid; it neglects to add that their hesitation probably stemmed from how they had just broken a UN boycott by playing a series of gigs at Sun City, the whites-only playground in apartheid South Africa.
The film is part-produced by Queen’s longtime manager Jim Beach and two of Mercury’s bandmates, May and Roger Taylor. Which is another way of saying: Don’t expect anything more than a safe gloss over the Queen story. It leans into Mercury’s experience, telling of his relationship with his parents, his early marriage and his coming out as gay. But the film’s perspective feels outside-looking-in on Mercury’s world: Its attitude toward sex and drugs is coy and uncomfortably close to the small-world thinking it claims to dismiss.
Luckily, the music wins out—which is surely what the surviving band prefers: a lively, uncomplicated jukebox movie. Bohemian Rhapsody is a feature-length earworm that leaves “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “We Are the Champions,” “Another One Bites the Dust” and the rest of them wriggling in your cochlea and helping to drown out any inner whisper suggesting that you’ve just had the wool pulled over your eyes by these masters of rock theatrics.
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