Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Rami Malek gives a championship performance as the great Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.

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Twentieth Century Fox

Bohemian Rhapsody—a movie that recounts the life of the late Queen singer Freddie Mercury, who's played by Rami Malek—is pretty wonderful in several ways, but it's also a museum of ancient biopic clichés. For example, in an early scene we see the young Freddie-to-be, an immigrant kid from Zanzibar named Farrokh Bulsara, at his parents' London home, where he lives. You've met these parents before. Dad (Ace Bhatti) is an old-world kind of guy who disapproves of this rock & roll music his son is so into, and the late-night life it engenders. However, Freddie's mom (Meneka Das) is an optimist. When her young nightcrawler says he's going "out with friends" again, she asks, hopefully, "A girl?" "Maaahhm," he whines.

Classic: some light biography, a touch of sex-life foreshadowing. A little later we find Farrokh—or Freddie, as he's already calling himself—at a bar cheering on his favorite band, a group called Smile. Out in the parking lot between sets we see drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and guitarist (and physics grad!) Brian May (Gwilym Lee) being informed by their singer that he's leaving the band. This character is barely out of the frame before Freddie pops up and informs the two Smilers that he's a songwriter and a singer, too. And we're thinking: Wait, what? When did he start doing these things? But the picture has already moved on.

In less time than it might take an average person to cross the street, Freddie has joined the band, changed its name to Queen, and pushed it to record a demo. The group scores a record deal, releases an album, and is soon touring the world. At this point, Freddy is living with a sweet young woman named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, making a lot of a little role). They're really in love (he's given her an engagement ring), but she senses something is not quite right. In a scene set in the midst of a tour, we see Freddie at a pay phone in a concert-hall corridor, talking to Mary back in London. "Do you miss me?" she asks. "Don't be silly," he says, eyeing a pair of sultry lads nearby, who are eyeing him right back. "Of course I do."

The narrative manipulations in this movie are classic head-smackers, but at least they're deployed forthrightly. I think the filmmakers (of whom there've been many over the course of the picture's messy eight-year development) have embraced tried-and-true clichés as a crowd-pleasing element of large-scale commercial storytelling and, hey, so what? There are worse sins. And much worse movies.

Still, the picture might not be worth much discussion were it not for Rami Malek, whose performance as Freddie Mercury, both onstage and off, is…well, pick a superlative. Titanic, maybe. Volcanic, even. Swanning around in (recreated) venues from Madison Square Garden to London's Wembley Stadium (for the ripping 1985 Live Aid scenes), Malek has thoroughly nailed Freddie's harlequin-leotard concert persona. And the singing, although not his, is beautifully constructed and exhilarating. (What we're hearing is Mercury's original Queen vocal tracks mixed with the ultra-Freddie-like voice of Canadian singer Marc Martel—a mixture fresh enough to dispel the usual dire vibe of soulless lip-synching.)

To the actor's great credit, Malek's Freddie is a complex character after the music stops playing. The singer had an extreme overbite (the result of four extra incisors he'd been born with), and this required Malek to wear jutting prosthetic bucked teeth throughout the film. The marvel of this is that we pretty much forget about it after the movie takes hold. Mercury may have been embarrassed about his dental abnormality, but he didn't show it—in fact, he believed it to be an important component of his vocal power. As he tells another character at one point, "I'm exactly the person I was always meant to be. I'm not afraid of anything."

There's been some pre-release grumbling about the way that Mercury's sexuality is portrayed in the movie. This is unfounded. By all accounts, he saw Mary Austin as a true soulmate; and here, when they both realize that he is gay, and that their physical relationship is over, he implores her to continue wearing the engagement ring he gave her. "What do you want from me?" she asks in some frustration. "Almost everything," he says.

But the movie is also straightforward in depicting Mercury's gay relationships, for better and worse. We see him being cruelly manipulated by a snake named Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who has compromising photographs and ultimately sells him out to the tabloids. And we see him finding long-term happiness with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who was with Freddie when he died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991. But it's fair to say that his deepest love really was for Mary Austin, to whom he left the bulk of his very large fortune when he died.

These details of Freddie Mercury's story are so moving that we nearly stop noticing the movie's ongoing narrative cheese. When we see Brian May in a studio thumping out a rhythm with his foot as he works up a number that will "give the audience a song they can perform," we know we're present at the birth of "We Will Rock You." And when John Deacon tries to cool down a studio argument with a dance-y little bass riff he's just dreamed up, well, here comes "Another One Bites the Dust." At one point, someone in this film actually says, "Freddie, you're burning the candle at both ends."

I say embrace this vintage silliness. It's worth it.

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  1. I wonder if Mercury knew one day his song would be used to I guess kind of make fun of a 10-day U.S. White House communications director.

    1. They use “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I am guessing, to make fun of Scaramucci? Because it has his name in it? Jesus that is lame. And this is coming from a guy who thinks we should troll Jon Favreau with Swingers quotations every time he beclowns himself publicly.

      1. For Scaramucci’s brief term with the White house, I think “Another One Bites the Dust” would have actually been better.

  2. Jesus Freddie had four extra teeth? Never knew that. I guess whatever fan cred I had is shot to fuck. Extra ballsy fuck-it-ima-go-for-that-shit props to him for becoming an international sex god with that condition. (Not that I didn’t already admire him for overcoming the even more massive handicap of doing so while being an Indian. And for strutting around without a shirt all the time without even bothering to shave his hairy Indian upper back.)

    1. Without double checking via google, I BELIEVE he was ethnically Persian, but his father had worked in India when he was very small, or something to that effect.

      The extra teeth thing is crazy though. I knew he had the massive overbite (hard to miss, duh!), and that he was always a little touchy about it, but refused to get it fixed because he was afraid it would mess up his singing. But I never knew it was because of 4 bonus teeth. That’s crazy town.

      1. False! He was Indian through and through. His parents were Indians from India, he was born in (the very insular, more-Indian-than-India Indian community of) Zanzibar but spent his childhood in India, and so forth.

        The shred of truth to the popular belief is that he was a Zoroastrian, which of course is a religion that originated in Iran. But it had been present in India for centuries. His family would be as foreign in Iran as yours would be.

        It tells you something about how much of a sex appeal killer being an Indian would have been for his image, that he continued to call himself Iranian–grasping at a tiny strand of truth to portray his family as some sort of incidental transients in India–even though during the peak of his career all people associated Iranians with was Islamic terrorism!

        1. Sort of- his family was Parsi, which are a different ethnic class in India. They are basically persians who migrated to India in the 600s. So I guess you could call him a Arabian Indian.

          1. Parsis are indeed a distinct Indian ethnoreligious community; they are supposed to not intermarry but we all know how that goes in practice. As you say, they have existed for nearly a millennium and a half. Latin Americans are Arabs compared to that. Think about what was going on in Europe contemporaneously; Britain had barely started to turn Saxon.

            1. Interesting, all the above.

              I knew I was remembering it somewhat right!

              Post below me: He looks Persian… I kinda feel the same.

              In most places the no intermarrying thing is dodgy at best… But India was THE most hardcore instance of caste separation I have ever read about in all the history I have read.

              So, if you gave him a genetic test, I’m sure he’d come out with some “proper” Indian in there… But he might be A LOT more Iranian/Persian/whatever than you’d think because of how strict India was.

              On that note, the Aryan Invasion Theory, which STILL has the most genetic and historical proof despite many Indians disliking it nowadays for political reasons, means most northern Indians (and a good grip of southern Indians) are largely Persian-like genetically anyway. India is a sub-continent of half breeds so to speak anyway.

              So it’s all a finer line than many might like to think anyway!

              1. India certainly does caste like no one else. But there is something to the proggie anticolonialist narrative–so often otherwise trafficking in comforting mythology where whitey is the source of all that appears unwoke to modern eyes–that caste actually hardened considerably over time. Bit like the Hutu and Tutsi in Africa.

                Aryan Invasion is well beyond “has the most genetic and historical proof.” An Indian origin for what we know of as the Indo-Aryans–either genetically or culturally–is straight-up flat-earth garbage. It’s as settled as you get in terms of historical theories. You might as well “respect” the Amerindians’ belief that they sprung up from the Earth’s navel in the Americas. Even stupider, since actual Hindu religion does not dictate such a belief–only 20-21st century Hindu nationalism.

                Since Hindu militants do not fuck with anyone outside India people tend to go soft on indulging them, which is sickening IMO. Among the shabbiest was the disgraceful conduct of California (surprise!) in the infamous Hinduism textbook controversy.

              2. What’s kind of weird (not crazy though given how genetics work) is that I feel like both of his parents look more “stereotypically Indian” than he did. But as you said, there’s a wide variation of appearance within India, and the Parsis presumably have more Persian ancestry to begin with.

                1. Talk about “rigid caste systems”! (And their inevitable status as more comforting myth than reality.)…

                  Meet Sandra Laing and her two “pure-blooded” Afrikaner parents. (Probably not atypical Afrikaners if you know their history and are more willing to face it than they are.) No she was not conceived by the mailman. You know the South African state would have jumped on the slightest excuse to have said so, since her very existence was a profound humiliation for them, their identity, and the entire organizing principle of their society and peoplehood–revealing the whole system to be nothing but a laughingstock and a ridiculous joke.

          2. So I guess you could call him a Arabian Indian.

            Nope. Persians and Arabs are two completely different races of people. There are “Arab-Indian” communities in India (but more in Pakistan and Bangladesh), but as vek points out “traditional North Indian” is probably nearly indistinguishable genetically speaking from “Iranian.”

            The term “Iranian” is in fact cognate with the term “Aryan.” As well as, interestingly enough, the term “Irish.”

            1. I’d imagine that the Indo-Aryan ancestors of North Indians probably mixed with existing populations enough so that it’s not accurate to say they’re indistinguishable from Iranians. But probably true for the most part of that ancestral segment.

          3. Persian-Indian maybe, but Persians (Iranians) are not Arabs.

        2. Well he sure looks Persian to me. I guess that’s not really relevant, but it’s interesting to me how movements of people from long ago still affect our perceptions.

    2. you all racist, No one I know cared where he was from we just liked his music

      1. His look was unconventional and thus a topic of interest. And everyone knows Indians (dots) are the real racists.

  3. Playing the lead well doesn’t necessarily make the film, but playing it badly can certainly ruin it. I don’t know whether The Doors movie would have been great otherwise, but Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison was so bad, how could anyone ever tell? I guess it’s easier to play a fictional character because nobody already knows what that person was like. If Malek nails Mercury, good for him.

    The other problem with a biopic is that you’re telling a story that happened over the course of 15 years in two hours. The only way to really tell an interesting story in that short amount of time is to do what Scorsese did in Raging Bull, you give a long time to telling moments and just let the audience fill in the rest, whether they know the story or not.

    Otherwise, why make it a two-hour film?

    Why not make it a ten episode series for Netflix, Amazon, Sling, or Hulu? Hell, cable television is even broadcasting limited series now (see The Sinner). If a biopic is too big for a two-hour movie, use ten hours. Don’t have them meet, write songs, get signed, and record in ten minutes.

    1. Totally depends on the person, but 2 hours is usually not enough. As big of a Queen fan as I am, I don’t think I’d want to sit through 10 hours of biopic… But 4 hours perhaps. 2 will almost certainly not be enough.

      But for many other figures, even 10 hours can hardly cram in all the crazy stuff they did.

      1. There’s more than enough material there for 10 one-hour long episodes. It’s a big story with some huge ups and down and ends with both triumph and tragedy.

        Make it eight.

        Make it five episodes.

        Or concentrate on one or two telling moments in the story.

    2. Length is hardly the controlling factor in the level of awfulness of most music biopics, particularly the authorized ones. Most of it is completely unnecessary. Decisions tend to come into play that are artistic poison. That has certainly been the rumor here, in spades.

    3. What about Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash? I remember loving that movie.

      1. There have been some good ones. They typically concentrate on some aspect of the story–like the love affair between Johnny Cash and June Carter.

        The Buddy Holly biopic was good, but it’s easier to tell that story ’cause the band was only together for a few years.

        Too much huge shit happened in the Queen story. It’s way too complicated and big for two hours.

        If I were making a movie about the Stones. It would focus on Altamont and be about the 60s falling apart at the end. Maybe it would focus on the excesses of their tours in the early 70s. It sure as hell wouldn’t be a comprehensive story of the band getting together in the early 60s through through their 21 century tours.

        Any story that’s about how the band got together needs to take half the story just to tell that, and if that’s not part of the story for some compelling reason, then why even bring it up?

        If I were making a two hour movie about Queen, it would probably start with a raging rendition of the “We Will Rock You” live and just start the story from News of the World. You might be able to fit a good story about Mercury in two hours between that and Live Aid.

      2. Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles
        Beyonc? as Etta James in Cadillac Records

        Those two were also great

      3. Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles
        Beyonc? as Etta James in Cadillac Records

        Those two were also great

        1. Dewey Cox may be a fictional character but, John C. Reilly’s performance is hard to beat. Reilly actually perfoms all the songs and knocks it out of the park.

          1. Walk Hard was fantastic. I think it worked so well because despite all the absurdity inherent in the parody, the film actually respected its characters. I actually got a tear in my eye during Dewey’s final concert.

    4. A lot of music biopics are indeed dicey. I was referring to biopics in general. As a history dork, I LOVE me some suuuper long movies about great historical figures. Especially the ones that are fairly realistic, and don’t get into Hollywood-izing things too much.

    5. “Do we need a two-and-a-half hour movie about the Doors? No, we don’t. I can sum it up for you in five seconds, OK. I’m drunk. I’m nobody. I’m drunk. I’m famous. I’m drunk. I’m fucking dead. There’s the whole movie, OK?”

      -Denis Leary

    6. I never watch series of anything since I never get to see the other episodes. I’ll be lucky if i sit through a two hour movie and i haven’t been to the theater in over 20 years.

  4. I really like Freddy and his music. I have no interest in seeing this film. I feel like it’s just going to piss me off.

    1. Sounds like typical biopic crap–authorized biopic at that, naturally the worst kind. Has there every been a good music biopic though?

      Not even casting that weird looking Egyptian kid that everyone loves is likely to rescue this.

  5. Even in these diversity-celebrating times, Bohemian Rhapsody feels obligated to tone down reality for mass audiences. Because even sucking half the dicks in London don’t make you one-onehundredth as strong gay as thirsting after Michael Rapaport’s ugly son for four years.

  6. My sister and I had the Greatest Hits on regular rotation as young kids. The one thing I remember my mother telling us about Queen was how Freddie Mercury would fuck anything that moved. I think it was supposed to be an attempt at a moral lesson. I dunno.

    1. Well, it certainly didn’t keep you from becoming The Gay! Which is fine. But hopefully it has saved you from going a dick too far, which is what gave Freddie The AIDS. Which is bad news bears!

      The real question is WHICH “Greatest Hits” did you have? The actual Greatest Hits one, or Classic Queen? I seem to recall liking Classic Queen better for some reason, but I’d have to look up the track list to be sure… I wonder if I still have those cassettes…

      1. I wonder if anyone will ever make a Greatest Hits album again. Seems unlikely now that it is pointless.

        1. I think The Who should release a new greatest hits album. When I look at the music industry today, I say to myself “we need another album with Happy Jack on it”.

          Same goes for the Kingston Trio and “Tom Dooley”.

  7. I had no idea he was from Zanzibar. Tragically, I saw an article just today entitled “Tanzania announces ‘surveillance squad’ to hunt down homosexuals.” Zanzibar is of course the “zan” in Tanzania.

    1. Yeah it was run by Arab princes, the last Arabic-speaking country in Black Africa. Then the pro-Tangyanika blacks revolted and started killing Arabs and Indians. Freddie’s family figured this was not a bad time to take their leave.

  8. Wait … Freddy Mercury was gay?

    1. There were whispers.

    2. Techinically bi. Seriously though, that guy could sing.

    3. There’s a great joke along those lines toward the end of the movie.

  9. Brian May is a total genius

    One of the greatest rock guitar players of all time. He composed many of the songs we all remember
    He completed his PhD in astrophysics 37 years after he started work on it having taken some time off to become a legendary rock star.

    Freddie gets all the attention.

    1. Watched a film of one of their concerts (Budapest, I think) and was really depressed at how the performance was Freddie Mercury (yeah, he could move and sing) over here ? and there ? and there ? and the rest of the band somewhere else. Maybe it was necessary to get the sound they wanted, I don’t know, but it made them seem like anything but a coherent band. Which as I say was depressing because I loved their work on CD

  10. “Freddie gets all the attention.”

    Did the R&R era ever produce a better pure singer? You might argue Morten Harket, the king of one-hit wonders, but Freddie wrote, arranged, produced, and sang hours of immortal music from bubble gum to opera. You do what he did and I’ll give you more attention than I’d give the electric chair.

  11. If it had been a little longer and braver, it could’ve been a better film. But for what it is, it’s an enjoyable movie.

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