Bohemian Rhapsody, Bryan Singer’s biopic of Freddie Mercury, is nothing if not a linear recitation of events. The best of Queen’s music approached poetry, but Singer’s film sits comfortably as prose, occasionally the stilted kind.
Just look at the first scene after its credit sequence: The young Freddie (Rami Malek), then known by his birth name Farrokh (Bulsara), is one of many leather jacket-wearing, nocturnal longhairs in 1970 England, leaving for another evening of rebelling and carousing just as his father, a square functionary in suit and tie, returns from a hard day’s work and proceeds to upbraid his shiftless son.
Minutes later, Farrokh is at a nightclub watching Smile, a good rock band with a middling following that, it just so happens, loses its lead singer that very night. Farrokh walks by, learns this news, and all but hires himself in the job. Queen is born. Sorry, Dad.
There’s something arch and schematic about both of these scenes, which dispense of messy authenticity for narrative expediency. The characters are receptacles for exposition, not flesh-and-blood humans. Over the next two hours, Singer continues to compartmentalize Mercury’s (and Queen’s) wildness, sculpting their eccentricities into a formula familiar to anyone who watched a couple of VH1 Behind the Music episodes back in the ‘90s: the stratospheric rise, the crippling triune of drugs, fame and ego, the redemptive reconciliation. This is the preferred structure of the rock star biopic, and it’s classically Greek in its shapeliness. That’s why, for every avant-garde biography (I’m Not There, Last Days), there seems to be five or six Rays or Walk the Lines or I Saw the Lights.
And yet, while it’s firmly ensconced in this conventional cohort, Bohemian Rhapsody is as compulsively watchable a film as you’ll see in 2018. Few 134-minute films move as smoothly and effortlessly as this one. It hopscotches across Mercury’s signposts with the winning charisma of its subject, and while it pays due attention to the singer’s complicated personal life, it recognizes that the music is the draw.
Bohemian Rhapsody is never better than when it places us in the band’s studio — which, in the case of Queen’s landmark 1975 album A Night at the Opera, was a distraction-free farmhouse in the bucolic countryside, where Mercury would compose the movie’s experimental title song surrounded by chickens and greenery. Crazed, boundary-breaking epiphanies such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” seem like they materialized out of the ether, but Singer breaks this one down into its constituent parts, each one a cog in a construction project. As in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, Rhapsody shows us that songwriting is an act of labor as much as inspiration, the realm of tinkerers as well as geniuses.
Later, when the movie explores the conception of “We Will Rock You,” we learn that it began with guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) creating its iconic stomp-stomp-clap rhythm purely with body percussion, the instruments and vocals added later. “Another One Bites the Dust” originates with John Deacon’s (Joseph Mazzello) sick, mutant disco bass lines, introduced while his colleagues are engaging in an internecine squabble, and effectively shutting them up.
As for Queen’s singular appeal, Mercury describes it to the man who would become their first manager as “we’re four misfits who don’t belong together playing for the other misfits.” We’re treated to the requisite scenes of pushback from small-minded, bean-counting record execs who just don’t get it, personified here by EMI’s Ray Foster, who asserts that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is decidedly “not a song that kids in their cars will want to bang their heads to.” I tend to hate lines written to make a character sound unwise thanks to the writer’s benefit of hindsight, but this is an example of Singer allowing a little meta fun: The actor playing Foster is Mike Myers, who vigorously banged his head to Queen’s anthem in Wayne’s World. A knowing chuckle rippled through the over-30s at the advance screening.
The only time this fluidly paced picture slackens is when it deviates from the music for long stretches of time, indulging in Mercury’s cartoonish libertinism — typified by all-night parties at his royal mansion, purchased at the height of Queen’s fame — and his rote struggles with drug abuse and exploitative managers, one of whom he fires while standing pitifully in the rain, a movie cliché if ever there was one.
Even these moments are redeemed in part by Rami Malek’s performance. Not only is his voice a carbon copy of Mercury’s signature baritone, and his appearance a marvel of makeup and costuming, but he captures Freddie’s Jagger-like charisma, buck teeth and all. Singer, to his credit, avoids the temptations of hagiography, and Malek portrays Mercury with refreshing neutrality, presenting him as petty, belligerent and vulnerable as well as confident, witty and charming.
Mercury famously died of AIDS-related complications in 1991. Singer accurately presents a historical moment when being a gay man was a health hazard, but he doesn’t wallow in the singer’s decline, respecting Mercury’s own wishes to avoid the maudlin. Instead, he sends us off with an almost complete re-creation of Queen’s 1985 comeback concert at Live Aid, filmed in front of a heaving stadium full of extras, like the climax of a Cecil B. DeMille movie.
Bohemian Rhapsody will never win any writing awards, but with exhilaration like this, it doesn’t need to. When all is said and done, it remains about the music.
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Director: Bryan Singer; Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Mike Myers, Gwilym Lee; Distributor: Fox; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday at most area theaters