It’s telling that Freddie Mercury chose to pepper his mansion with cats, maybe because their personality traits mirrored his own: As a man, Mercury was proud, unapologetically high-strung, and ferociously independent. As a rock god, he burned onstage like an incandescent singularity, his shimmering voice serving as a conduit for Queen’s pounding arena anthems. Although it is a fairly traditional biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody largely succeeds at bottling the energy that made Mercury so captivating, while also offering a glimpse into his paradoxically enigmatic personality. Alternately invigorating, sad, and inspiring, this film is a fascinating study of a man who was larger-than-life and yet often achingly lonely in crowded rooms.
Bohemian Rhapsody begins with Mercury as a young man, stuck chucking suitcases onto conveyor belts at Heathrow. Such an existence is monotonous for a firebrand like Mercury, and–like all protagonists in all musical biopics–he scribbles lyrics and dreams of outgrowing his ordinary surroundings. He endures the scowling contempt of his conservative Parsi Indian parents and racist taunts from co-workers. Mercury ingratiates himself to the struggling members of the band Smile, and just happens to find them without a lead singer. Before long, he has imbued his ambitious theatricality onto the band’s soul, transforming the group into an operatic rock powerhouse called Queen. From that point, the story covers the familiar terrain: Queen climbs high and fast, only to have their success demolished by reckless hedonism and creative rows over who controls the band. Mercury’s isolation and nagging self-doubt begin to consume him and alienate his bandmates.
The success of a biography like Bohemian Rhapsody is largely contingent on the actor who inhabits the central role. Rami Malek is absolutely phenomenal as Freddie Mercury, a man blessed with redoubtable talent and charisma, and yet burdened with a desperate need for love and validation. The movie also delivers a strong supporting cast of bandmates and loved ones who care deeply for Mercury without completely understanding him: Lucy Boynton is sweetly vulnerable as Mary Austin, Mercury’s girlfriend who begins to suspect his romantic needs might be elsewhere. As Brian May, Gwilym Lee endows Queen’s guitarist/astrophysicist with the cerebral introspection to balance Mercury’s molten fury.
Some may criticize Bohemian Rhapsody as too precious or sanitized, but I think that misses the point. As musicians, the members of Queen were adventurous but not particularly revelatory. Neither is this movie, but then it’s not supposed to be. The plot briefly touches on darker aspects of Mercury’s life, but doesn’t wallow in them. If anything, Bohemian Rhapsody reflects the brighter sides of its subject: It’s an endlessly compelling story, built for big audiences to enjoy with big speakers. A softer, probing drama could’ve autopsied more of the warts and goiters that made Mercury a complex, engrossing individual, but it also would’ve robbed him of one last chance to do what he said he did best: Give the people what they want.
Rated PG-13 for language, brief sexuality and drug use. Junior high kids and up should be fine, but it’s probably too much for younger children.
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