Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 134 minutes
Directed by: Bryan Singer (credited), Dexter Fletcher (uncredited)
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers
It’s somehow fitting that Queen performed the theme song to HIGHLANDER, “Who Wants To Live Forever.” That song, and the film’s tagline – “There can be only one” – also apply to the enduring legend and singular talent of Freddie Mercury. There was no other performer like him, and no other band that holds a candle to what they achieved.
However, for such an innovative, forward-thinking group, biopic BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY delivers something more akin to a cinematic Wikipedia entry. While the foot-stomping jams and sweeping scope make this a theatrical experience, director Brian Singer and screenwriter Anthony McCarten find few inventive nuances within the formulaic framework.
The picture, graciously finished by director Dexter Fletcher (who only receives executive producer credit) when Singer repeatedly didn’t to show up to set, tells the origin story of the regally-named band. It even opens on the 20th Century Fox fanfare performed by the surviving members. Queen starts off struggling to play college bars and small venues, only to become a record-setting group – selling out stadiums and crafting rousing anthems (like “We Will Rock You”), operatic rock ballads (like the titular song) and enduring hits (like “Another One Bites The Dust”). From the time austere-jawlined lead singer Mercury joins Brian May (Gwilym Lee), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), it’s clear they are destined for world-wide stardom. But that meteoric rise to fame comes at a cost, especially when ill-intentioned sycophants, drugs and booze come into play.
Wanna know innocuous details, like how Mercury’s signature mic hold was created? That’s here. Wondering how it was that music critics savaged a song that topped the charts twice? That’s also here – and demonstrated though the perfect casting of Mike Meyers, who formerly head-banged to the tune in WAYNE’S WORLD, now playing doubting record exec Ray Foster. Are you curious about Mercury’s love of cats? There are many, many cute close-ups of his beloved four-legged companions.
Keeping this from morphing completely into a rote “Behind The Music” special, much of the drama is focused on Mercury’s life-long struggle with his identity. Born Farrokh Bulsara, he cloaks his Indian-Parsi heritage in Anglo-Saxon whiteness through gender-bending popular fashions, and hides his homosexuality – going so far as to marry Mary Austin (Lucy Boyton) in order to deny it to himself. He also psychologically wrestles with his roles as a family member, both as a son to a disapproving dad (Ace Bhatti) and figurative brother to the band as their magnetic front man. Through the bookend sequences showing their famous “Live Aid” performance, we find more thematic resonance – the Mercury we’re introduced to (his back facing the camera) is a different one than we know by the end. This theme of evolving perspectives is also, rather literally, reflected through visual motifs peppered throughout, as Mercury’s mirrored aviator sunglasses reflect the crowd, the press and ultimately himself. All of this plays like a fantasy of a journey towards self-acceptance that’s tied up in a perfect bow by film’s end.
Malek effortlessly channels Mercury’s commanding stage presence (that sexy strut!), conviction, and power to hold the audience in his grasp, elevating and electrifying the masses. So much so, there’s no room for building out his bandmates. Though the intention was to show a comprehensive portrait of their rock royalty, anyone not named Freddie Mercury comes across as barely one-dimensional. Twice they mention Taylor cheating, but instead of that expository dialogue informing the character, it only reminds us that we don’t know anything about May, Taylor and Deacon – a shame since those actors, from what little we do see, are up to the task. At least the filmmakers were able to carry through a funny long-running joke about Taylor’s song “I’m In Love With My Car.”
Sure, the filmmakers add a crackling, aesthetic zing to the proceedings in an attempt to elevate the folkloric anecdotes to mythic status. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography is absolutely dazzling. It’s outstanding the way he effuses light, utilizes shadows, saturates color and harnesses the widescreen frame to augment the narrative. Julian Day’s costume designs are impeccable and, might I add, covetable. Editor John Ottman keeps the energy alive and at the forefront during the music sequences. That said, if he got paid per cut, he’d be a millionaire, as the front half of the film is a tad too frenetic.
Queen were the pioneers of the audience response. Their lead singer challenged gender norms through clothing (and, later, as a band, in the “I Want To Break Free” video banned from MTV). They were boundary-breakers. Their cinematic adaptation is far less so.
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY opens on November 2.