Biopics are a tough type of genre to analyze. Neither a documentary or so often a honest linear accounting of events, these types of films are a type of Cliff’s Notes version of history. This is even more prickly with music biopics because no one has a lower tolerance for bullshit and rose-colored glasses than a die-hard fan of a band or artist. In the case of Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody, the fact that the film got made at all after development hell, Sasha Baron Cohen quitting the project, director Bryan Singer being fired towards the end of production, Dexter Fletcher coming on to finish it up and more. Still, you have to tip the hat for the job 20th Century Fox did pulling this together and getting the film out into theaters. And the theater is where you should see this film because it is a spectacle and your cell phone or your living room can’t contain it.
The film by in large focuses on Freddie Mercury rather than the whole of the band. While this is a bit of a disservice to the contributions and importance of the other members of Queen, Freddie has the most compelling back story made for the movie and it is intertwined with the band history too. With Dr. Brian May and Roger Taylor working on the film as Executive Music producers, you wouldn’t think they were going to go too hard on their personal lives, similar to the way Straight Outta Compton movie glossed over a lot of that story. Picking up from the bands’ meager beginnings, they had a lot of confidence, drive, and perfectionism in their step that led to their initial success. Especially Freddie who had a tremendous confidence of vision. They believed in themselves when no one else did. While this may feel a bit trope-y to some, the early part of the Queen/Freddie story in the film is the most accurate. Queen was confusing to critics and derided, even after the release of Bohemian Rhapsody came out. A fact the film cleverly reminds the viewer of with snippets of savagely bad reviews flashed on the screen.
Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) gives a revolutionary turn as Freddie. He really embodies a lot of personal and professional turmoil he deals with. His prosthetic overbite aside, Malek really encapsulates Freddie the powerful performer and the lonely, vulnerable person so well, you almost think you are seeing the real deal in action. The rest of the actors also give fairly convincing turns, especially Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Dark Knight Rises), Lucy Boynton, Allen Leech, and Tom Hollander making up Queen’s inner circle. While it’s true some of the facts about Freddie’s sexual history seem cloudy on purpose, it’s a lot less “straight-washed” than feared before release. Boynton’s Mary Austin is so crucial to Queen and Freddie’s life and especially Fred’s value system, it would have been a shame to omit her to tell more of the other facets of his life. On a negative side, Mike Myers playing an EMI record executive, while unrecognizable behind amazing 70s makeup, seems to be there to be the butt of a winking joke about Wayne’s World. Woof.
The music is, of course, epic. I saw the film at an AMC Dolby theater (shout out to AMC A-List and Stubs) with especially great sound. From the soundtrack itself, complete with a new Queen written ’20th Century Fox Fanfare’, to the deep cuts honored in the film (‘Keep Yourself Alive’ is amazing!), the score and even the “live concert” moments augmented the film. You feel like you are there in the crowd, perhaps better than any film experience ever. If there is one major flaw, the over-use of montages to move the story along. This is done in every bio film, which is fine and needed. The opening montage over the credits is chill-inducing. Some of the other sequences seem slapped together so poorly in order to tell a “band on tour” or “band making an album” narrative it makes you laugh. Not in a good way. Making up for it is the final part of the film dealing with Queen’s return from the brink of a break-up and their performance at Live Aid. It may be tough to recall for those not of age in 1985, but it really was the cultural touchstone of the decade, and Queen was the unquestioned stars of the event. Some of the camera work and staging of the band is an exact mirror of what fans saw on TVs around the world. It’s a lovely nod to the time, but I feel some fans may miss it.
Of course, we know the tragic end of the story before we buy a ticket. Less than five years after Live Aid, Freddie passed away from AIDS. The film quickly wraps after Live Aid and Fred’s final moments are down to the details in the credits. I definitely shed some tears a few times over the final hour of the film, and if you don’t toward the end. Yes, there are some issues with the film, and it takes some liberty with events and timelines (‘We Will Rock You’, written in 1977, not 1980) and goes for highlight reel feelings, instead of a deep dive. The cringe-inducing moments are bad, but few compared to the overall story told here. In terms of showing the depth of talent and importance of this band, I can’t imagine Hollywood could do a better job.