Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Greatest Frontman: Rami Malek rocks and music thrills in safe but entertaining "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
134 min., rated PG-13.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” has been a long-gestating project and then became a troubled one mid-production. Director Bryan Singer (2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse”), with an uncredited Dexter Fletcher finishing the film, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (2017’s “Darkest Hour”) aim to tell the story of British rock band Queen and frontman Freddie Mercury, and while their film might not take as many risks as Queen did as a misfit musical group in the 1970s, it is an entertaining, if mostly safe and formulaic, biopic that soars during the musical moments. There is no way to tell an entire life in one film in all of its complexities, especially when taking a broad, cherry-picking approach, so it is no secret that nearly every biopic of a revered, influential figure takes dramatic license. Without “Bohemian Rhapsody” breaking free of the conventions of the subgenre it falls under, the accuracy of Rami Malek’s spectacularly magnetic turn as the excitingly unconventional Freddie Mercury is more than enough to overlook the bullet-point, A-to-B narrative that only scrapes the surface of the details.

Before rechristening himself as “Freddie Mercury,” he was Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), a 24-year-old Persian immigrant working as a baggage handler and living under the roof of his conservative parents in 1970, London. He was drawn to music as his personal form of expression, and while checking out London’s music scene, Freddie follows a band called Smile, compromised of guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). When he witnesses their lead singer quit after a gig, Freddie auditions on the spot and surprises them with his four octave range. Bringing bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) on board, the band is formed, selling their van to produce their debut album, and deciding on the very regal band name “Queen,” a band of four misfits playing for other misfits. They then land a contract with EMI Records, at which point Freddie meets and gets engaged to fashion store clerk Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who would remain the love of his life next to his ten cats. Once Queen rises to public consciousness and records their fourth album in 1975, Freddie goes through ups and downs of accepting that he is gay, though still loving Mary; hosting big parties where he alienates his fellow misfit band members; suffering spats with the band; and later being diagnosed with AIDS.

Being an authorized biopic (surviving Queen members Roger Taylor and Brian May, along with the band’s manager Jim Beach, were producers on the film), “Bohemian Rhapsody” is objectively standard, ticking all the boxes of any music biopic, and careful not to ruin Freddie’s legacy, even if that means massaging the truth here and there. Perhaps it is the fault of 2007’s spot-on “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” which left no cliché untouched when parodying music biopics, that every forthcoming “real” biopic feels pedestrian by comparison if it isn’t taking a detailed look at a seminal moment in time. If the film is rather sanitized and chaste, dutifully preserving a PG-13 rating and only touching on Freddie’s sexuality, promiscuity, substance abuse, and AIDS diagnosis (respectively, Freddie shares a glance with a man entering a restroom and frequents leather bars, cocaine is merely shown on a coffee table, and he coughs blood into a tissue), Rami Malek (TV’s “Mr. Robot”) makes up for the glossy screen treatment with his uncanny commitment.

Channeling the real Freddie Mercury’s flamboyant mannerisms and stage presence with the power to command a crowd with an "Ay-Oh," Malek is larger-than-life but endearing, and there’s no room to criticize Malek’s singing because it’s mostly all Freddie. Besides wearing an initially jarring dental prosthetic that grows more comfortable, he loses himself in the role and locates the essence of Freddie’s charisma without the fear of exposing his ego and flaws. Peerlessly cast as Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy (2017’s “Only the Brave”), and Joseph Mazzello (1993’s “Jurassic Park”) distinctly round out Freddie’s bandmates and form a wonderful familial dynamic. As “love of his life” Mary Austin, whom Freddie first comes out to as bisexual and stands by him even when their love becomes a different kind of love, Lucy Boynton (2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express”) is lovely and fully authentic, while Allen Leech (2014’s “The Imitation Game”) only gets to play up the parasitic, enabling, altogether villainous nature of Paul Prenter, Freddie’s manager turned lover.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is bookended by the Live Aid benefit concert at London's Wembley Stadium in 1985, and how the film culminates in Queen's rock performance is immersive, thrilling, and electric. Why Queen’s music has endured comes out loud and clear in this transcendent late-film center piece. Before that, the development of writing songs, such as “We Will Rock You” and the stomp-stomp-clap, and a perfect recreation of the “I Want to Break Free” music video featuring the band in drag, are highlights. There is an amusingly inspired meta moment involving Mike Myers (who banged his head twenty-six years ago to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in “Wayne’s World”) as record label exec Ray Foster, who favors “I’m In Love With My Car” but deems “Bohemian Rhapsody” too operatic and too long at six minutes. The production itself is straightforward but slick, achieving its most style during the aforementioned Live Aid pinnacle, a nightmarish press conference where the media tries to force Freddie to dish on his private life, and the barrage of negative pull quotes from magazine critics flashing on the screen in front of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” album cover.

Save for a few dramatically reconfigured beats in the script to achieve inevitable forgiveness, where “Bohemian Rhapsody” takes liberties and shortcuts—is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?—will only really be apparent to those with a close knowledge of Freddie Mercury’s life. Freddie’s relationship with cater-waiter Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) that would continue for seven years until the singer’s death is only cursorily explored. They share a nice moment after one of Freddie’s parties, parting ways before Jim tells Freddie to look for him when he learns to like himself, but the way in which Freddie reconnects with Jim, who just so happened to be home and apparently isn’t seeing anyone else, not long before he goes to Live Aid is far too easy. “Bohemian Rhapsody” might not be the final word on Freddie Mercury, as it could have taken a deeper dive into certain aspects of Freddie’s life, but as a rousing greatest-hits catalogue and a showy, star-making showcase for Rami Malek, it leaves one on an energized note.


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