“Bohemian Rhapsody”

 

            It would have been so easy to mess this one up.  Who can re-create the genius of Freddie Mercury, or the unique sound of Queen?  And how to explain the difference in cultural context?  But they hit the nail on the head with “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  And it begins and ends with the inspired casting of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.

            Yes, he started as a baggage handler at Heathrow named Farrokh Bulsara.  His ethnic background was Indian, though he grew up in England.  As the movie would have it, he went out to a club one night to hear a band he liked.  Afterwards, when he met them backstage, he found out their lead singer had just quit, and he offered to take his place.  A quick audition and suddenly there was musical magic.  (In reality, his musical background was much more complicated, including piano lessons at a boarding school, where he excelled in art, but the movie chooses to begin at the moment of the formation of Queen.)

            Farrokh changes his name to Freddie Mercury, and as the band begins to develop its signature music, Freddie becomes more confident as a lead singer.  His showmanship skill increases exponentially;  he now says he was born to be a performer.  He also becomes bolder and more flamboyant on stage, with daring costumes and more brazen sexuality.  He meets a beautiful woman, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), whom he marries, but soon it is clear that he's not happy in the marriage.  Freddie has finally admitted to himself that he is gay, though by the time he gets around to telling his wife he's bisexual, she says she's suspected it for a while.  He says he still wants her in his life, but he also wants the freedom to pursue the gay lifestyle.  She, in turn, decides that she needs to be free to pursue someone who will be a husband and father, but Mary and Freddie remain emotionally connected, even if not physically together.  By this time the band has become successful enough that Freddie is able to throw elaborate parties, though the entourage around him has now completely changed.  The other band members, straight guys with wives and families, feel increasingly uncomfortable with the company Freddie chooses to keep, and eventually the band splits over “creative differences,” which includes Freddie wanting to do solo work.

            But a funny thing happens on his way to total personal independence.  Freddie discovers that he can hire musicians to play whatever he wants.  But he misses the pushback, and yes, the contributions, from his former band members.  They reconcile just in time to play the Live Aid Concert at Wembley Stadium, a blowout performance that showcases Freddie's incredible ability to connnect to an audience.

            Musically, the movie is outstanding, and showcases just enough of the other band members' talents.  It's the guitarist who comes up with the iconic stomp-stomp-clap rhythm of “We Will Rock You.”  And it's the bass player who begins the remarkable rift that undergirds “Pressure.”  And it's the drummer who supplies those soaring high parts for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” 

            Criticisms?  Minor ones.  It's too long, and it drags when the band's not together.  We don't get any glimpse into how Freddie Mercury developed his mercurial talent, and nothing at all about his foray into legitimate opera after the band's final breakup. But overall, it's a remarkable cinematic achievement, and there are enough highs and lows to send the viewer on a memorable emotional roller coaster.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association