Full disclosure. When Queen added a chorus of the music hall sing-a-long classic Oh, I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside at the fade out of their ‘74 single Seven Seas of Rhye I was hooked. They had me at “Tiddely-om-pom-pom.” Bohemian Rhapsody is the story of the rise, the falling out, the rise again and all the conflicts in between of the English rock band Queen, relating specifically to the antics of its lead vocalist, Freddie Mercury.
While the film includes all four members of the band, compared to the creatively unrestrained flamboyant habits of its frontman, both on and off the stage, lead guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, and bass player John Deacon appear the epitome of normalcy in a rock ‘n roll world known for its often unconscionable level of wild behavior. It was Mercury who changed the band’s name from Smile to Queen. When asked why the new moniker, Mercury (Rami Malek) replies, ”Because it’s outrageous. And I can’t think of anyone more outrageous than me.”
Opening not with the regular orchestral 20th Century Fox fanfare but with that stylized and distinctive Brian May guitar arrangement, the film begins in ‘85, just as Freddie Mercury enters the stage at a packed Wembley Stadium for Live Aid. By this point, most of Queen’s story has already happened. But instead of proceeding with a performance, the film cuts back to where it all began, in London, 1970. Events will eventually circle back to the famous benefit concert, but until we return to that expansive platform at Wembley, a lot of ground is going to be covered.
As portrayed in the film, while guitarist May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Taylor (Ben Hardy) were playing small clubs in their band, Smile, Mercury, then known by his real name of Farrokh Bulsara, worked as a baggage handler at London’s Heathrow Airport, taunted by fellow workers for being a ‘Paki.’ “I’m not from Pakistan,” Bulsara replies.
Farrok Bulsara was born of Parsi (Persian) descent in Zanzibar and grew up both there and in India before his family moved to England. Being a fan of Smile, he visits the club where they’re playing and introduces himself to May and Taylor after the show, letting them know how much he likes their sound. When May tells him thanks but they’ve just lost their lead singer to another band called Humpy Bong, Bulsara suggests they hire him. “Not with those teeth, mate,” Taylor tells him, referring to Bulsara’s overbite. But Bulsara ignores the comment and bursts into an immediate, impromptu audition. From there, he changes his name legally to Freddie Mercury and immediately instills his influence on what the band sings, what they’re now called, and the hiring of a new bassist, John Deacon (Joseph Mazello).
The way the film portrays their rise with a fast-paced jump from selling their van to pay for the recording of their first album to a performance of Killer Queen on BBC’s Top of the Pops, you’d get the impression that fame and success came practically overnight. In reality, there were several years of struggle before radio airplay, plus by jumping so quickly, the film misses the opportunity of showing how the band worked on that unique, signature sound. An earlier scene in the recording studio when Mercury makes suggestions to the board tech of how to get things sounding right, particularly the movement of voices from speaker to speaker, is certainly an indication of their individual approach, but Killer Queen marked a difference in style, departing from the heavy rock of their previous singles, Liar and Seven Seas of Rhye. There’s a whole film that could be made of those few years alone, but the film glosses over the struggling period and goes straight to their success.
While there’s almost no coverage of May, Taylor, or Deacon’s personal home life other than a glimpse of their wives in a social setting and a remark from Taylor that he needs to get home to the wife and kids, Mercury’s life is explored in considerably more detail, showing his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the true love of his life despite his yearnings for men. “I’ve been thinking about it,” Mercury tells Mary. “I think I’m bisexual.” “Freddie,” Mary responds, “You’re gay.” Though not mentioned in the film, in reality, after Mercury died, he left his house and recording royalties worth over $10 million to her. The song Love of My Life is Mary’s song.
One of the great strengths of the Brian Wilson story, Love & Mercy, was the behind-the-scenes sequences at the studio when Wilson was creating new techniques for the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds. Bohemian Rhapsody only glances at the work and how sounds were achieved, though there is something amusing when seeing band members argue whether Taylor’s I’m in Love With My Car should be included on the album A Night At the Opera, plus witnessing the band’s overall opposition to recording Deacon’s Another One Bites the Dust until he plays the bass line for them
Even more amusing is the meeting at EMI Records with (fictional) head executive Ray Foster (Mike Myers, complete with a Northern English accent). Foster doesn’t care for the operatic, six-minute song of the film’s title, insisting it’s not formula, it won’t get on the radio, and the kids can’t bang their heads to it, a remark made all the funnier when you recall Myers as teenager Wayne Campbell banging his head to that very recording along with Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World.
By the time we circle back to Live Aid, there’s so much we’ve learned of Mercury, his excesses, his men, those relationships, Aids, and his moments of extreme loneliness, that reuniting with his band members for this special twenty minute performance in front of millions around the world is far more moving than anyone watching the concert on that day could imagine. The sequence is a practical step by step recreation of that presentation (one that you can judge its accuracy for yourself from several uploads on YouTube), but watching the real thing doesn’t convey the emotion of the moment in the way the film can, nor can you see the look in Mercury’s eyes as the crowds respond with absolute love to his performance. It really was a triumph, not only for Live Aid, but for Queen, a vindication for everything they’d done, the sound they’d created, and the work they’d achieved.
Among the several conflicting issues that any biographical story is faced with when told on the screen, there’s what to put in, what to leave out, what to condense, and what is needed to fictionalize in order to get as much of the full picture up there as possible. Purists familiar with the band’s ups and downs will undoubtedly complain of any revisionist account, particularly if a favorite moment in Queen‘s well-documented rock ‘n roll history is ignored or a favorite song isn’t even mentioned, but that’s inevitable; there’ll always be someone who’s not happy. Like the clips in a two-minute trailer when promoting a two-hour film, only highlights of a lifetime can be shown.
While Anthony McCarten’s screenplay can only go so far in connecting the dots, considering the mountain of information he had to work with and the endless amount of conflicts that occurred within a fifteen year period, Bohemian Rhapsody does an admirable job of getting Queen’s story across. On-the-set dramas aside – though he gets full credit, director Bryan Singer was fired, replaced by Dexter Fletcher – the end result remains quite the musical thrill ride. And Rami Malek is truly remarkable. He might be smaller and less broad in stature, but watching Malek’s Mercury is as though you’re watching the real thing.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 134 Minutes