I was introduced to the music of Queen while I was in college. A senior on the Trojan Debate Squad, Mark Dickerson, was selling me some of his old sample cases since his debate career was finished. I went to his apartment and he played some Tom Scott jazz records while we were talking. As I was looking through his album collection, I came across the Queen Album “A Night at the Opera”. I asked about it and he played Bohemian Rhapsody for me, I was hooked. That summer when my family took a trip across country in the Chrysler Station wagon, I contributed two 8 track tapes to the trip. One was the Blue Oyster Cult album, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, the other was the aforementioned classic. We must have listened to the whole thing a dozen times between California and New York.
What made Freddie Mercury so great as an artist was both his vocal range and his theatricality. The film about the band, but mostly about Freddie, gets those two things right. The music tracks are synced up to work with the film and the performance of Rami Malek does justice to Mercury’s out sized persona. From put upon son of an immigrant family to one of the most charismatic performers of the rock era, Malek captures the essence of Mercury, even if he does not sing all the songs himself. As for the story, I suspect it has been cleaned and tweaked and molded into something that will be appealing to a mass audience, although how accurate it ultimately is will probably be a subject for discussion for many miles down the road.
Obviously for dramatic purposes, many events have to be condensed to tell the story in a timely fashion. The music montages that rocket us from his first performance with the band mates that connect with each other, to their signing a recording contract and becoming a major attraction in England is pretty swift. It does showcase some tremendous songs however and we see the flowering of his personality on stage. The romantic story that accompanies this rise is quite sweet but it is uncertain. We know that his life was extravagant and ultimately his sexuality is more focused elsewhere, but the pairing between him and Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin feels sincere and plays out in the early stages like most romantic films. The complexity of his need for her in his life might have made the film story more memorable, but it is largely glossed over and we simply are expected to accept that she accepts his terms for their relationship.
The traditional story beats of a band that comes together, struggles to find it’s voice and holds firm in the face of doubters are all played out here. The band members are introduced and each has sufficient personality to distinguish him enough to get the outlines of the story, but none of them have any complexity to draw focus away from Freddie himself. When they argue over the inclusion of one song or another on their upcoming album, it feels more like a contractual obligation to keep the roles clear and give each member some role in the success of the band. Their sniping over song titles and lyrics is just an amusing way to show that the band was not just Mercury. There are some fun scenes where the creation of key works is mythologized. Roger Taylor hitting the high notes during the chorus of Bohemian Rhapsody is played for laughs. The idea that “We Will Rock You” is an audience participation number designed to feed upon the growing relationship of the band with it’s international audience, is planted like a seed to bring the fantasy to life. If the bass riffs used to calm an argument can become the basis for “Another One Bites the Dust”, than all the better.
The downward trajectory of Mercury is set up early on by both the self discovery of his sexual identity and the indulgences of a decadent lifestyle. Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll are a cliche that even the great ones cannot escape. After bitterly discharging a longtime manager for suggesting he pursue a solo career, Freddie is guided into trying exactly that by a sycophantic friend and romantic interest who we have been suspicious of from the beginning. I quite liked the mea culpa that Malek has to make Freddie go through to be able to reconnect with his three musical partners. It’s a good scene that allows the actor to perform as a character and not just a performer. The performance part gets the full attention treatment in the last part of the film. The Live Aid Concert and the moments with a new romantic interest and his family, feel a bit contrived by all happening on the same day, but hey it’s Hollywood and we expect to be entertained by a movie. Yanking your heart strings and wowing you with theatrics are two sure fire ways that the screenwriters and primary director Bryan Singer keep you hanging on for two plus hours and send you out of the theater thrilled instead of despairing. The movie may not be artistic but it is vastly entertaining. Oh yeah, it also has a Killer Soundtrack.