If you only watch films having read a good review, read this: watch Bohemian Rhapsody. The biopic of glam rock band Queen is an unmissable, feel-good celebration of the majesty of Freddie Mercury’s talent and the band’s irresistible tunes. It is also a tragic reminder of how much more they could have achieved had Mercury not died of Aids, aged 45, in 1991.
The film opens with a flash-forward to the end scene, as Mercury (Rami Malek), the band’s flamboyant lead singer, walks on stage to perform in the massive 1985 charity gig, Live Aid. The event featured some of the biggest bands in the world, playing simultaneously at stadiums in Britain and the US, over 16 hours to raise money for starving orphans in Africa, and watched by 1.5 billion people worldwide; the magnificence of the event is recreated for this film’s heart-pounding coda.
But all that comes much (much) later. The film proper begins with a young Mercury meeting the other members of a not-bad student band, stepping in to replace the lead vocalist, and setting them on the path to rock history. To call this a Queen story is a stretch: almost all of the focus is on Mercury. The lives of guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and guitarist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) - all of whom, especially Hardy, bear uncanny resemblances to the originals - are touched on, but this is Mercury’s story. Born in Zanzibar to Parsee parents who were forced to flee to Britain, his life was already fascinating well before he even met the band.
Some have complained therefore that there isn’t enough time given to his, at the time, controversial lifestyle. But really, that would take even more than the two-plus hours the film already stretches to. What this film does so well is honour the music, and the musical genius of four men, four “misfits who don’t belong together” as Mercury puts it, who utterly transformed the musical landscape of the 1970s and 80s, and beyond.
How much the creation of their songs is dramatised is up for debate, but there’s a real joy in watching how some of the greatest hits, including the film’s title track and We Will Rock You, come about, in the film at least. And the physical performances by all the actors - Mercury’s real vocals, as well as those of Mercury impersonator Marc Martel are used on many of the tracks - are magnificent. Compare them, after, to real footage of the band and you can’t help but be amazed. (A sing-along version of the film is needed, stat.)
The highlight is, without a doubt, Malek. He is absolutely phenomenal in his role, both physically and emotionally, perfectly embodying Mercury’s complex character, shifting seamlessly from his swagger outrageous on-stage persona to the unsure, overwhelmed figure he often cut in private. It’s difficult, despite the prosthetic overbite, to take your eyes off him, his every move and facial expression telling as much, if not more, story than his words.
While, yes, there are clichéd script moments, bizarre use of graphics, (the band’s tour is told through silhouettes of famous Mercury poses accompanied by city names in lights), and poetic licence taken with facts, ultimately what Bohemian Rhapsody does is champion incredible songs that transformed the industry, introducing them to and contextualising them for new generations. Add to this incredible costumes, a couple of in-jokes (a line about starting to look like one’s romantic partner surely is a knowing nod to May’s future wife; plus that Wayne’s World reference) and a sense of jubilation that comes from really great music, and you’re onto a winner.
If you love music, you’ll love this.