If you’re only casually familiar with Queen, it’s possible to forget just how iconic their body of work is. Bohemian Rhapsody is a stark reminder. It’s so full of world-famous songs that there isn’t even room for ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ – it has to settle for accompanying the credit roll. A cradle to grave study of a band rather than a person, Bryan Singer’s troubled production (finished off by Dexter Fletcher after Singer was fired for poor behaviour) is shallow and more than a little silly, but is still pretty irresistible. It’s glamorous and shiny, with a star performance for the ages, which proves to be more than enough.
Starting in 1970, we first meet the man who will be known as Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) working at Heathrow airport, but it’s not long before he’s met Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), recruited John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and started a band that will change music history. For the first two thirds of the film, there really aren’t any obstacles. These are four of the most musically talented people in British history, and their rise to the top is a done deal from the moment they put their heads together.
Instead problems arise as their world-conquering fame gets into Freddie’s head, rendering him irritable and lonely and ripe for exploitation by controlling and possessive quasi-boyfriend Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Any worries that Mercury’s story was going to be straight-washed prove unfounded, his homosexuality and later AIDS diagnosis an emotional keystone of Anthony McCarten’s script. It’s hardly an explicit take on the story, sure, but what else would you expect from a mass appeal blockbuster? A general lack of antagonist – grumpy old-fashioned exec Ray Foster (Mike Myers) is always proved wrong in his doubts within about four seconds of voicing them – gives Bohemian Rhapsody a loose feel that isn’t hugely propulsive, but does give the performances a chance to breathe.
The casting is spot-on. Visually accurate to a t, the lack of major stars lets the gravitas and charisma of the subjects speak for itself, and Malek is simply extraordinary. The polar opposite of any performance he’s given so far in his career, his Freddie is a thundering piece of work, animal magnetism and unbridled genius flowing constantly and simultaneously. As an impression, it’s precise and very hard to fault, but Malek also brings his own unique energy, and absolutely dominates the stage when Queen perform.
These gigs, especially the climactic Live Aid appearance, are gripping, faithfully recreated from the real thing and bursting with energy. Almost as exciting are the studio sessions that produce the iconic music, and while there are some stylistic missteps along the way (though never when Queen are actually playing), the sound work is a total knockout throughout. Wall to wall high production values keep things visually interesting, and the sheer scale of the biggest gigs is well-captured – when you’re on the stage with the band, the ‘rock god’ sensation is palpable.
Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t really going to teach you anything new, nor does tell its familiar story with all that many fresh insights. This is a Greatest Hits album of a film but, like all the best Greatest Hits compilations, it’s so proudly emotional and electrifyingly fun that these criticisms hardly matter. Unfortunately stained by the Bryan Singer name after the many, many accusations sent the director’s way, it’s a big and splashy entry (earning its IMAX release) into the awards season that should launch Rami Malek into the stratosphere.