Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek as the iconic Freddy Mercury, shot to number one at the box office this weekend. While it isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, its heavy dose of nostalgia and classic soundtrack make it a fun watch and leave you ready to blast some Queen on the trip home.
Rhapsody follows the traditional pattern of a success-story movie, starting by briefly showing the pivotal moment the whole movie will build up to, then jumping back in time to show the journey there. In this movie, that pivotal moment is Queen’s performance at the 1985 Live Aid benefit concert. The movie starts with a series of shots leading up to the iconic performance (including shots of Mercury’s cats, who are arguably the movie’s true stars). As “Somebody to Love” plays, you see Mercury leave his trailer, take the microphone, and walk towards the stage, without context. Then the screen cuts to black, and you’re suddenly back 15 years, when Freddy Mercury was still Farrokh Bulsara and worked as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport.
The rest of the movie, while not unenjoyable, attempts to cover a lot of ground and at times seems unsure of what tone it wants to strike. You watch as the band forms, skyrockets to success, tours America, records their albums (there are a LOT of montages in this movie), and then splinters apart because Mercury wants to try going solo. It tries to tackle many different and difficult themes, including Mercury struggling with his sexuality, his relationship with his family (both biological and his band-mates), and ultimately dealing with his AIDS diagnosis. As the movie tries to balance so many relationships and events, it feels like Bohemian Rhapsody barely scratches the surface of Mercury’s life and the trajectory of Queen.
As you’d probably expect, the highlight of the movie is, hands down, the music. The soundtrack includes all of the classics, from “Fat Bottomed Girls” to “Under Pressure” (and, yes, I’m listening to it while I write this review). Bohemian Rhapsody truly shines in the scenes where the band performs or records together—you get a sense of how much audiences adored Queen and how natural of a performer Mercury was. One of the most enjoyable parts to watch is a sequence in which the band records the song that lends the movie its name. The cast clearly had as much fun with the epic opera-rock ballad as the rest of us do when we sing along.
However, the truly spectacular scene (and the best part of the whole movie) is the epic, moment-for-moment recreation of Queen’s 20-minute set at Live Aid. The performance itself is great, but it is further nuanced (in the film—the IRL timeline wasn’t quite the same) because the band is playing together for the first time in years and because Mercury is already dealing with the physical effects of his AIDS diagnosis.
The attention to detail in the Live Aid performance is also evident throughout the whole movie. Malek’s performance is spot-on, and you can tell he and the rest of the cast (Gwilym Lee as Brian May, Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor, and Joe Mazzello as John Deacon) studied the band members’ mannerisms and facial expressions to get them just right. That being said, some of the dialogue throughout felt a bit contrived. I have no doubt Freddy Mercury was an incredibly eloquent man, but real people don’t usually have exchanges like: “Every band wants more.” “But every band is not Queen,” or “You’re going to do great things.” “No, we’re going to do great things.”
Using the Live Aid performance as the movie’s end-point was also an interesting choice, and one I liked. By closing with this high-point for the band, Bohemian Rhapsody gives a fairly optimistic end to a tale that we all know ultimately ended tragically. Instead of showing Mercury’s health fully decline and/or the aftermath of his passing, the movie focuses on his life. It does, however, include a series of “what happened next” sentences at the very end, including one with the details of Mercury’s death.
More than anything, Bohemian Rhapsody will make you angry at the cosmos for taking Freddy Mercury away so young, and make you desperately wish you could go back in time to see Queen perform in their prime. By the end, I found myself wondering if I’d rather just sit down and watch some Queen concert videos. And, for the record, if you stay for the credits that’s just what you’ll get.