Rami Malek Breaks Free From Formula In Queen Movie "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Although Queen remains an active band, with 71-year-old guitarist Brian May and 69-year-old drummer Roger Taylor still making a racket in arenas worldwide, the name is a misnomer. Queen hasn’t been Queen since November 24, 1991, the day frontman Freddie Mercury died of AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia; the day the group’s legacy, not one of good songs or bad songs but of ubiquitous songs, was cemented in the public consciousness.

Anyone born after 1980 has never known a world without six-minute rock suite “Bohemian Rhapsody” or scientifically proven catchiest pop song of all time “We Are The Champions” being everywhere all the time. Likewise, “News Of The World” opener “We Will Rock You” remains hokey and senseless and a masterpiece of both production and musical populism, guaranteed to play every professional sporting event until Judgment Day.

It’s fitting, then, that the motion picture “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the band’s first real dalliance with the big screen, rises above the boundaries of good and bad on the back of one spectacular, inescapable performance.

No thanks to disgraced director Bryan Singer, whose terrible fingerprints are all over the project’s biggest defects, star Rami Malek (USA Network’s “Mr. Robot”) makes for an impeccable Freddie Mercury. No, Malek’s Egyptian ancestry (the 34-year-old was born in Los Angeles to Egyptian immigrants) shouldn’t be thought of as interchangeable with Mercury’s Farsi roots, but the actor gives himself over to the role with such pomp, both physical and spiritual, that it’s hard to see anyone but Freddie Mercury when he’s on screen.

Director Dexter Fletcher (“Eddie The Eagle”), brought in when Singer was fired in the middle of production (Singer retains sole credit as per Director’s Guild of America rules), does an admirable job of lassoing together a herky-jerky, defiantly formulaic musical biopic. Aided by some energetic editing from John Ottman, Fletcher funnels the project’s assets (mostly the music and live performances) in Malek’s direction, leading to more of a Mercury-heavy film than might be expected.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” covers fifteen years in the life of a band, chronicling Freddie’s rise from Heathrow airport baggage handler to rock god – with bandmates Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) in tow, of course. The picture gives us almost no insight into the band’s creative process, but its interpersonal dynamics are modestly compelling, elucidating screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s decision to fudge some pretty big facts – like the year of Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis.

The upshot doesn’t justify said deception, but without puffing up the band’s dysfunction the movie might play like a 130-minute tribute act.

The topic of Mercury’s sexuality proves a thornier one for the film, at first handled with the same discretion the man himself used. The screenplay positions the self-discovery of its lead as a burgeoning bisexuality, which leads him to break off an engagement with longtime friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton).

But Freddie was a gay man, a fact with which the movie must eventually reckon, and when it does, it drops the ball completely. Certain passages (especially a party montage set to “Another One Bites The Dust”) scan as condemnatory of Mercury’s lifestyle and thusly his eventual AIDS diagnosis; maybe intentional on the part of someone involved with the film, more likely a byproduct of Bryan Singer’s usual kitchen sink approach to filmmaking.

The director’s obvious vision for the film is the most artless, clichéd thing imaginable. It’s no surprise that it might yield an ignoble dramatic insinuation or two.

Thankfully, Malek’s magnetism is enough even as the movie around him sputters. He carries it through a painful first hour (the line “Formulas are a complete and utter waste of time!” is spoken out loud, unironically) to a more character-driven second act and then soaring crescendo: a pulsating re-enactment of Queen’s famous 1986 Live Aid performance.

Pay close attention the sequence’s wide shots and you’ll swear footage of the real Freddie Mercury was digitally painted in. But no, Malek’s movements and posture are just that on point, bringing Freddie Mercury back to life in front of us – and the movie to the goosebump-raising conclusion the actor’s performance deserves.

Although rarely as flamboyant or outrageous as its frontman might have liked, its highs are every bit as undeniable as the band’s biggest hits. Rami Malek has arrived

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 2, 2018
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Lucy Boynton, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language)