One significant question in the creation of a biographical motion picture, or biopic, is how much actual history can be put in without turning it into a straight documentary, and how many fictional elements can be mixed into the narrative for dramatic license before it becomes too much. When the subject of the biopic happens to be one of the greatest rock bands in history, one with a years-spanning decade and a front-man with a very interesting private life, that question becomes especially important. I would not say “Bohemian Rhapsody” by 20th Century Fox answered that question, but it does somehow present what I think is a reasonable blend of historical facts and dramatic storytelling.
As the title implies, the film is a biopic on legendary British band Queen, as centered on its lead vocalist Freddie Mercury, portrayed to magnificent effect by American (of Coptic Egyptian extraction) actor Rami Malek, whose film and television career has seen him play an Egyptian Mummy (“Night at the Museum” films) to, more recently, a cyber-security hacker for three seasons of USA Network’s “Mr. Robot”. To get to play Freddie Mercury would easily be the pinnacle of all his roles thus far, and he nails it with near-accurate aplomb.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” means to show the history of Queen, from its beginnings as the pub-playing Smile until talented vocalist and songwriter Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara, a Parsi airport luggage handler who puts up with being mistaken by Britons as a “Paki”, volunteers to replace their quitting lead singer. With Freddie’s voice and command of the stage complementing the instrumentation skills of Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and the guitar hero Bryan May (Gwilym Lee), the rebranded Queen make enough of a splash that the guys follow Freddie’s lead to start making albums and eventually going on tour too.
That is all well and good, but any fan of Queen that has researched their history would know that this is a simplified Cliff’s Notes version of what actually happened. No, Freddie did not acquire his legless mike stand on his first outing with the band. The events are all broad strokes, with general music biopic tropes seemingly used to tie the general waypoints together. The same applies to the coverage of Freddie’s personal life: his estrangement from family, his falling in love with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), and eventual examination of his actual sexuality.
But then some counter inquiries pop up. Does it really matter that events in Freddie Mercury and Queen’s lives are not delved into greater detail? Do glossing over the lives of Brian May and the others to keep the spotlight on Freddie ruin the perception of this being a Queen biopic? Does establishing Freddie’s homosexual relationships following the deterioration of his engagement to Mary, but not going graphic beyond guys kissing, a cop-out to the nitty-gritty of the dalliances that led to tragic consequences that were not depicted either? The production team went with “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a dramatic movie rather than a pseudo-documentary. I happen to accept that.
Story interpretation aside, there is one element of the film that only tone-deaf critics being harsh for its own sake would dare mark down: the music. While Malek was given his due with him vocalizing at some points, the heavy lifting was given over to actual Queen song inserts to the performance scenes, from studio recordings to the concerts, all done in meticulous attention to detail. From the wardrobe to the sets (a few instances of anachronism notwithstanding), it all looks appropriate to the period.
But the piece de resistance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” has got to be its final sequence, being Queen’s set during the 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley. The scene was a near-exact copy of the actual set, with only two songs omitted; but anyone who has seen footage of Queen at Live Aid would be able to match Freddie’s body motions to Malek’s. He is just that good, and the scene is enhanced with cinematic techniques from drone shots of the Wembley Stadium set, which was indeed filled with real spectators. I would be hard-pressed to find anybody who was not affected by this one sequence.
When I watched the film in the cinema for my review, I saw a wide age range in the audience, from possible Queen-contemporary adults to high school students to children. Some of them even sang along when the songs were on. If that is no indication of Queen’s mark on music I would not know what is. This to me makes worth it all the behind-the-scenes production drama, and their ability to salvage a gem from disaster, particularly Dexter Fletcher who finished what the initial director Bryan Singer started. This Queen biopic may leave much to be desired in terms of historical focus, but its celebration of the band’s music and Freddie’s place in it cannot ever be simply ignored.
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