We can stipulate a few things about “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We can stipulate that it’s not a great movie. We can stipulate that, in many ways, it’s not even a very good movie. As a trite, often laughably cliched biopic of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, an enterprise that should have been as daring and flamboyantly theatrical as its subject winds up being bowdlerized, Wiki-fied, distortingly compressed and unforgivably conventional.
We can also stipulate that, despite the myriad shortcomings of its parts, the sum of “Bohemian Rhapsody” winds up being giddily entertaining, first as an exercise in so-bad-it’s-funny kitsch, and ultimately as something far more meaningful and thrilling. Every now and then, a film comes along that defies the demands of taste, formal sophistication, even artistic honesty to succeed simply on the level of pure, inexplicable pleasure. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is just that cinematic unicorn: the bad movie that works, even when it shouldn’t.
As a whirligig tour through Mercury’s rise and tragic end (he died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991), “Bohemian Rhapsody” hits all the expected notes: We meet young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), the son of immigrants from Zanzibar, when he’s working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, writing songs on the fly and making pilgrimages to a local club to hear his favorite band, Smile. When that group’s lead singer quits, Bulsara holds his own impromptu audition in the parking lot, wowing guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) with his soaring range and instant harmonizability. Not since Ally sang “Shallow” for Jackson Maine outside Super A Foods have the musical gods smiled so fortuitously.
What follows is the stuff of familiar history: Renamed Queen at the suggestion of Bulsara (who already called himself Freddie and went on to adopt the stage name Mercury), the band becomes hugely popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s, creating pop anthems and an extravagant stage show that defies rock’s grittily macho self-image and proves improbably galvanizing.
Meanwhile, Freddie proposes to the love of his life, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), even though deep in both their hearts, they know that he’s gay. As Freddie’s fame grows, so do his conflicts: with his own sexual identity, with an unscrupulous manager, with isolation and drugs and, finally, with the band that made him a star.
These bullet points are dramatized with a metronomic sense of duty in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was directed by Bryan Singer until he was fired from the production, at which point Dexter Fletcher stepped in to finish filming and edit. That hiccup doesn’t entirely account for the pitfalls of a film that primary suffers from an eye-rollingly obvious script, in which real human beings utter expository dreck like “The album’s hit the charts in the U.S.!”
Part of what makes the plot of “Bohemian Rhapsody” so dreary is that it doesn’t illuminate anything beyond what the audience probably already knows (or, just as likely, knows more about). Schematic and shallow, it flits from one hoary set piece to the next with all of the insight, surprise and psychological depth of a sanitized “Behind the Music” episode or unironic remake of “Walk Hard.”
If anyone doubted that cinema is an actor’s medium, “Bohemian Rhapsody” arrives as indisputable proof. Even behind a set of distracting prosthetic teeth simulating Freddie’s famous overbite, Malek delivers a committed, thoroughly inhabited performance, which winds up transcending the regrettably thin material at hand. Considerably shorter than his character, Malek nonetheless masters the muscular swagger and captivating stage presence of a man who, when he sings in front of his first big crowd, announces that he’s finally discovered his life’s calling. Even at his most fey and alien-looking, Malek makes that statement utterly credible.
Happily – and crucially – the supporting roles in “Bohemian Rhapsody” are just as well-judged, As an end-credits montage suggests, the actors playing May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) look eerily like their real-life analogues. (Watch out for an amusing cameo by Mike Myers as a recalcitrant EMI executive and for the great Tom Hollander and Allen Leech as the managerial equivalent of good and bad angels.) The best parts of “Bohemian Rhapsody” have less to do with Freddie’s tribulations than the mysterious alchemy of a collaboration between four self-described misfits that on paper never would have worked, but yielded uncanny and enduring results.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the film’s most gratifying scenes re-enacting Queen’s performances and recording sessions, including a wonderfully invigorating sequence dedicated to the title number, which was concocted over a marathon session and an infinite number of takes (all those “Galileos” climbing ever higher and higher).
“Bohemian Rhapsody” ends with one of the most memorable movie finales in recent memory, when the filmmakers restage, almost note for note, Queen’s appearance at Live Aid in 1985, a performance that went down in history as perhaps the finest live set ever, and one that convinced those who had dismissed Queen as a camp event of the group’s technical prowess and electrifying showmanship. It’s a bravura passage, in which Malek’s physical presence fuses seamlessly with Freddie’s slightly ragged voice. As he gains strength, so does the scene and, by extension, the movie, which take on weight and emotion and an inescapable, infectious joy.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” might have started out as an ode to the supernatural talent of one man. It ends as a testament to a band, and simply how good they made their fans feel.
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