As the front man of Queen, singer and songwriter Freddie Mercury is one of the most charismatic and exciting performers of all time, in company with Jim Morrison. In director Bryan Singer’s biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) plays this musical legend with honesty, spirit and a zest of showmanship that the late Mercury would appreciate, but on the whole the film fails to grasp the artist’s uniqueness.
At the start, Mercury (whose birth name was Farrokh Bulsara), works as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport. He is shy and striking with slightly buck teeth, having been born with four extra incisors. He is driven by music. The young man sees the group Smile and asks for a job as lead singer. When the group refuses, Mercury sings a tune and he is hired on the spot. When a surprised pub audience goes mad, Freddie quickly establishes himself as leader.
On point is the relationship between Mercury and his socially conservative Parsi father (Ace Bhatti). Dad doesn’t know what to think of his son’s theatrics and Mercury always pines to push the envelope.
Freddie hits stardom quickly and falls in love with Mary Austin (Lucy Boyton) but the film spends a large amount of time highlighting Queen’s popularity rather than Freddie Mercury the person. We get much of Malek strutting and stalking as Freddie and this is compelling but there is precious little of Freddie, the man.
At the heart of the film is the making of the six minute song “Bohemian Rhapsody” which confused many critics at the time with its so called ‘nonsense lyrics’ but it is now regarded as one of the greatest singles of all time, for of all for its haunt and existential sadness. In this segment Mike Myers plays a record executive who is nearly incognito aside from his voice.
When Mercury grows tired of touring, he tries the disco single “Another One Bites the Dust” and then a bandmate proposes an anthem as a new way to engage the crowd. This appeals to Mercury, who like the surrealist Artaud before him, lived to engage the crowd so that there were no barriers between the audience and performer. Mercury pushed for the give and take, the auditory exchange of the crowd. Mercury was a giver and the film illustrates this well, especially in the 1985 Live Aid portion, which is stirring.
The film is less potent in the depiction of Mercury as a human being. There is a striking De Palma-esque sequence showing Mercury on the hunt in a leather bar but there is little of substance on his sexual orientation or how he feels deeply as an artist. We are introduced to his love Jim (Aaron McCusker) but how do the two of them feel when they are together. Details are few and far.
There is montage after montage of Queen in the throes of adoration with Freddie stalking about saying “Darling!” and mugging for his fans, but aside from a vibrant closing at Wembley Stadium, there is little of the wondrous human comet known as Mercury here.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” has the best intentions and Malek portrays Freddie’s magnetism accurately with energy. But as a story of an artist driven to move crowds, such a person of high volume and power deserves more than this conventional window-dressing.
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