Review by C.J. Bunce
The music biopic is as much a cinema fixture as Film Noir or the Western. Just look back at a quick swath of the genre and you’ll find Clifton Webb as John Philip Sousa in Stars and Stripes Forever, James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story, Gary Busey as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story, Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba, Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray, and Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. If Milos Forman’s Amadeus was worthy of a Best Picture Oscar—if the Academy gets it right–then director Bryan Singer’s new biopic Bohemian Rhapsody should also take home an armful of Oscars. Actor Rami Malek, in one of the decade’s most immersive, riveting, and powerful performances, conjures the spirit of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in a sweeping whirlwind of music and seismic spectacle celebrating individuality.
Few bands have the extensive catalog of music that can support a 2.5 hour film with familiar hit songs that fit the mood of every scene as Queen has. With the participation behind the scenes of Queen lead guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor as executive producers, from the first scene Malek’s Freddie Mercury will take Queen fans back in time, and yet it’s the casting of the other three band members that provides a cohesive whole, convincing the audience this was a real band, and a real family. Where Oliver Stone came close to getting his four actors lined up as mirrors for The Doors, anyone who grew up with the band can see how closely director Bryan Singer came to matching up the acting talent to Queen’s members (and it’s right there for comparison with archival footage in the film’s end credits). Audiences already knew Malek was a unique talent from his series Mr. Robot and his previous TV and film appearances. Like Val Kilmer transformed into Jim Morrison, American actor Malek becomes Anglo-Asian rock god Freddie Mercury. British actor Gwilym Lee (Ashes to Ashes, Midsomer Murders) is the all-out doppelganger of Brian May, and the next acting talent to watch for. The growth of American actor Joseph Mazzello from the boy in Jurassic Park to bass guitarist John Deacon (with a seamless British accent) is an eye-popping surprise. And Ben Hardy (The Woman in White, X-Men: Apocalypse, Mary Shelley) holds his own as edgy drummer Roger Taylor.
Anthony McCarten‘s (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) script has several parallels to both Amadeus and The Doors. Some clever–and some audacious–decisions include scenes incorporating Mike Myers (Wayne’s World, 54) as record producer Ray Foster, Tom Hollander (Gosford Park, Pirates of the Caribbean, Mission Impossible series) as lawyer Jim Beach, and scenes showing the development of Queen hits “Another One Bites the Dust” and “We Will Rock You”–altogether 20 hit songs made the soundtrack, including five of the eight songs from the band’s memorable 1985 Live-Aid concert.
Audiences won’t be able to tell when Malek is singing or when his voice and a soundalike singer are interwoven with actual Queen recordings. The film is ultimately a film epic in scope, a story of a visionary who died too soon, it’s also a tear-jerker. But despite trailers focusing on Malek, the movie is more about the band than simply its lead singer, so it avoids the darkest parts of Mercury’s personal decline due to AIDS to a great extent. Bohemian Rhapsody focuses instead on Queen’s formation and legacy, a celebration of the band and its mythic status–the kind of story fans will want.
Production elements are high-caliber, including a recreation of a full Wembley stadium and several other Queen performance venues. Costume designer Julian Day (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Rush) re-creates Mercury’s outlandish garb and the styles of girlfriend/fashionista Mary Austin, who Mercury referred to as his common law wife in real life (played by Lucy Boynton), and perfectly outfits the rest of cast with changing styles throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
With its PG-13 rating, adult elements like the bisexuality that was part of Freddie Mercury’s life are smoothly woven into his story but never in an exploitive way. Sexuality was only one of the issues that Freddie Mercury wrestled with and confronted with that are addressed in the film (there’s also no nudity and little, if any, profanity). If not for Bryan Singer’s personal scandal, Bohemian Rhapsody could easily be the film that propels Singer to a greater level of success as a director even beyond his prior feats of cinema including critical and popular successes The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. A film is the combination of the work of thousands of creators, so hopefully audiences and critics let the film speak for itself. The audience ultimately will have the final say, and in my screening it included a never-ending rumble of foot-stomping and ended with a roar of applause.
In a year of great movies, Bohemian Rhapsody is the movie that ends the discussion. Nothing was better. Great story, great direction, and a fantastic cast. Advance tickets are available now. Bohemian Rhapsody opens in the UK today with its U.S. opening nationwide November 2, 2018.