“Freddie, the candle’s burning at both ends,” Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) says to her former lover but lifelong friend, Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) about two-thirds through the film.
“But, oh, the glow is so divine,” Mercury responds.
Just like Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody” glows divinely as an endless stream of melodies swathed in a rainbow of colors.
The film stays this way – colorful and melodious – for the entirety of its 135-minute run time.
Viewers start off only with “a little silhouetto of a man” – Mercury – listening to opera music in his lavishly furnished mansion.
A scene later, the audience is whisked away to the daylit, outdoor stage of Live Aid 1985; Mercury and his fellow Queen musicians – drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and bassist Joseph Mazzello (John Deacon) – are “living it all” and “giving it all.”
All the actors, especially Malek, fully encompass their characters, capturing Queen’s members’ body language as if it were their own.
Whether it be Mercury’s flamboyantly expressive and spontaneous body language on stage or the pensive face of May during guitar solos, the cast owns the personalities of these rock n’ roll legends when reenacting live performances.
Then the audience is brought back to almost two decades earlier – when Mercury was just a design student at university.
The rest of the film follows Queen’s – and Mercury’s – journey to stardom chronologically.
Just as the title implies, this film is not solely about the harshness of Queen’s lead singer’s life. (If it were, it could have been named after Queen songs that allude to loneliness or anxiety, like “Somebody to Love” or “Under Pressure.”)
Instead, it’s primarily the upbuilding story behind Queen’s music, a series of musical exposés that peel back the layers and show the behind-the-scenes version of this 20th-century tour de force.
To us in 2018, it’s hard to remember that what Queen did with audio effects (using coins as percussion and swinging amps by a cord to get a unique sound balance) and musical style (just look at the average Queen chord progression, and you’ll see it’s more on par with Beethoven than the Beatles) was experimental at the time, especially since many viewers, like me, weren’t around during the musical golden age of the ’70s and ’80s.
The fact I’m grasping for a nostalgia I never had makes the film all the more exhilarating.
The film is thrilling to watch from a musician’s (cellist’s) perspective because creative genius is seen at work. The stories behind the more popular oeuvre of Queen are shown in full color.
Hardy as Taylor belts out “Galileo” dozens of times for Malek’s quirky-genius portrayal of Mercury; in buzzkill Ray Foster (Mike Myers)’s office, Malek as Mercury gives a thrilling monologue about eccentricity, the opera and the boundaries of music in defense of the titular song of the film; “We Will Rock You” is seen dreamt up in the mind of Lee’s May as the guitarist’s way of engaging the audience, and Mercury’s spontaneous improvisation of the rock anthem’s melody just makes you shake your head in awe of a musician at work.
The cast’s intense attention to detail – when mixed with realistic mannerisms, costume, accents, scenes and, most of all, music – makes viewers feel as if they’re there in the studio. Larger than life becomes real life.
And just as the audience was a quintessential element of every Queen performance, so is it with this film.
Music is seen as a grand uniter – both between Queen’s musicians themselves and between Queen and the audience.
Mercury’s ability to connect with the crowd is not only shown beautifully but also explained; each band member wants to appeal to the lonely person standing in the back – the odd one out.
Thus, the film preaches a tolerance of self-acceptance and the bizarre, an embracing of the oddballs.
And what is “Bohemian Rhapsody” but a piece for the misfits, the anthem of wandering bohemians living outré existences?
But if a harsh biopic of Mercury’s life is what you’re looking for, don’t get your hopes up. It tries, yes, with the tension between Mercury and his ex-fiancé Mary as well as the failed relationship with band manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), but it does not nearly demonstrate the complexity of sexual issues in the latter part of the 20th century.
It seems like the perspective is one of hindsight instead of one true to the time, one in which homosexuality was not nearly as accepted as it is today. The fact that nobody around Mercury seems to ever berate him or patronize him for his expression seems startlingly modern, as though it were invented with a modern audience in mind and not representing how his life actually was.
And when Mercury’s sexual orientation is brought up, his flamboyance and eccentricity sharply contrast the portrayed logic of his straight band members, even if they are being as emotional in a disagreement.
Mercury seems excessively emotional and irresponsible at his parties, while the others seem logical – almost as if he is in the wrong and the other (straight) characters are in the right.
Prenter and Mercury’s relationship is portrayed almost as an abusive one, and Prenter’s character is almost an archetypal villain, one which the real manager likely was not.
Also, HIV/AIDS plays a minor part, not mentioned until almost the end of film and feeling forced when brought up.
That being said, Malek’s acting neither stereotypes Mercury’s queerness nor seems to shy away from expressing the feminine and diva-Queen (yes, pun intended) aspects of Mercury.
In fact, Malek’s portrayal of the larger-than-life rockstar is so personal and emotive it can excuse any errors in the script.
We become part of that same audience and feel the same ecstasy as others.
Although maybe not capturing the full complexity of Mercury’s short but vivacious life, this film captures the power of music and Mercury’s brilliance as a musician.
And I’m fine with that.
The man’s life was so complex that it’d require a much longer rhapsody to explain his complex relationships.
Maybe we’ll get that, and hopefully Malek will still be on that big screen.