There’s a moment in Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, were Queen, led by an impromptu creative spark by Brian May (Gwilym Lee) accidentally write one of their biggest singles We Will Rock You on the spot. It’s emblematic of the entire endeavour; a contrived, unnatural sequence that seems far removed from any sense of reality, and yet it’s engaging and enjoyable, and to be honest, just a little bit silly. But it’s what gives this title that playful edge, and since Queen were such an accessible band for the people, for the film to thrive in that very notion seems all rather fitting.
At its core, however, this isn’t so much a biopic of Queen but more of their frontman, the charismatic Freddie Mercury, brought to life in emphatic fashion by Rami Malek. Set in the years leading up to their famous Live Aid performance in 1985, we meet Freddie when he first joins the collective, alongside May, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Managed by John Reid (Aidan Gillen), their rise to fame is meteoric, and while they clash creatively with important executives like EMI’s Ray Foster (Mike Myers… I know!), such is their unique artistic means of expression (Bohemian Rhapsody is a completely bizarre pop song, after all) it doesn’t stop them becoming the biggest band in the world. Though with this fame comes some drawbacks, as it leads their frontman down a dark hole of drug abuse.
There is such a myriad of themes at play, it was always going to be a tricky balancing act to ensure each feels well covered, and in this instance it does feel like we’re glossing over certain elements. The film maintains a light tone (a tone which is consistent – which is notable given the film changed direction when Singer departed the project to be replaced by Dexter Fletcher for the last leg of the shoot), where at times you can’t help but wish for more grit. Mercury’s addiction, his illness, his troublesome relationship with his family, are all themes we touch upon, yet drift away from somewhat. Even his relationship with ex-fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) feels under-developed.
Yet perhaps that’s just not what this film, and shouldn’t be taken at face value, and enjoyed for being the entertaining piece of cinema it is. After all, isn’t that Mercury would’ve wanted? It’s Malek’s performance too which makes this a film worth seeing. He completely becomes Mercury, the way he walks, his smile, his voice, it’s a true transformation that should see the actor considered during the award’s season. What makes it such a special performance is the humanity he gives Mercury. For most of us, we only saw him on stage, he was like an enigma, and somebody who had bags of charm and charisma, and while we see that in abundance in Malek, there’s also a vital sense of vulnerability to his demeanour, we get a real sense for his loneliness.
The structure and pacing of the film is also questionable, their rise to superstardom is somewhat rushed and they go from playing pubs to arenas without us truly getting a sense for it. But it’s worth sticking with right up until the end, for the final act, the very last 20 minutes, are a sheer joy to behold, with a remarkable scene set during Live Aid, which has been put together in masterful fashion (with one swooping shot over the Wembley crowd that will take your breath away). So while flawed, much like the band’s music, this is a film that is very easy to sit back and enjoy, even if you can appreciate that, at times, it’s not particularly very good.
Bohemian Rhapsody is released on October 24th