The story of Queen is the story of Freddie Mercury. It’s as simple as that. Bryan Singer’s biopic / behind-the-music / concert film Bohemian Rhapsody gives us Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), Brian May (Gwylim Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) in a damn fine style.
The music is heavily featured, of course, so if you’re not (gasp) a fan of the music, there’s little here for you. That’s an important point to keep in mind: the film was made for Queen fans. Being one, I can’t say what the experience would be like if you’re not, but probably pretty bloody dull.
When I was 16 in 1978, Queen wasn’t a novelty, nor were they venerated royalty just yet. They were one of many great bands at a time when musical exploration and experimentation were encouraged. Not all of those experiments turned out, many were ridiculous, but some were art and some even made it on the radio.
Radio was everything in the ‘70s. Only bands who got airplay succeeded. In 1976 Frampton Comes Alive had just shaken the pillars of heaven with its unprecedented success. Those songs ruled the airwaves until You’re my Best Friend and Bohemian Rhapsody came out and then Frampton had company.
Queen was a straight-ahead rock band until their fourth album, A Night at the Opera, where they introduced the song Bohemian Rhapsody. If you’ve listened to the album you know that’s not even the weirdest track on it. There’s a song about being in love with a car, and one about time dilation of near-speed-of-light space travel (‘39, written by Astrophysics Ph.D. Dr. Brian May). There’s even a progressive rock workout, The Prophet’s Song, that would fit right into a Kansas or early Genesis album. Floating above all of it are two extraordinary sounds that nobody else had: Brian May’s ethereal guitar and Freddie’s soaring vocal range.
“The story of Queen is the story of Freddie Mercury. It’s as simple as that.“
Bohemian Rhapsody has become a standard, to the point of being a launch pad for other artists to expand on. We take it for granted, but the film reminds us of the sheer balls it took to suggest that radio listeners might want to hear this bizarre mix of styles, instruments, and voices. From the first harmonies to the gong at the end, it’s a masterpiece. It’s as though the song was not created, but rather was always there waiting to be discovered, hanging in space, until Freddie Mercury found it.
That’s certainly how it felt back then, traversing the cafeteria of my high school in West Virginia, going from the bus drop to the classroom, the space filled with operatic falsetto voices singing about Scaramouche doing the fandango. This was usually followed by Roundabout by Yes, Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, then maybe something by Barry Manilow. That was just our music. Still is.
Every Queen song is pinned to a moment in my life. From long drunk college nights listening to A Day At The Races to waking up in an Air Force uniform and married life listening to Radio Gaga, Freddie reminding me to keep passing the open windows. Queen’s soundtrack for Flash Gordon and The Highlander made those films perfect.
Of course, we know Freddie’s life ended far too soon. Watching Bohemian Rhapsody, you know there’s an iceberg up ahead coming to slam into your reminiscence when Freddie gets AIDS and dies. The filmmakers made a good choice ending at Live Aid in 1985, six years before his death. This is his ultimate moment in the sun, everything after was goodbye.
“The essential emotions of Freddie’s life and the history of the band are here…”
The music and the shockingly great performance by Rami Malek makes this a “holy shit!” experience. Freddie seems to have come back and slipped into Malek’s skin to have a laugh with us. Malek achieves a Val Kilmer/Jim Morrison, Jim Carrey/Andy Kaufman level of spine-tingling creepy fucking good.
The actors playing the rest of the band do also disappear into their roles, in no small part because they so closely physically resemble the real people they are portraying. Mike Myers makes an appearance in a clever cameo, calling back his future moment of glory in Wayne’s World.
As with all dramatized stories of real lives, artistic license hammers messy reality into a watchable film. Dramas are not documentaries. The essential emotions of Freddie’s life and the history of the band are here. There’s nothing unexpected in the structure of the movie. It’s a visit with some old mates you’ve not seen in a long time.
Those were the days of our lives. We loved him. We still do. We miss him. Thank you, Rami Malek, for bringing him back for one sweet moment set aside for us.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Anthony McCarten, Peter Morgan. Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee.
8 out of 10