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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Bohemian Rhapsody movie review: dynamite with a laser beam

Bohemian Rhapsody green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Rami Malek brings warmth, humor, and a down-to-earth humanity to the larger-than-life Freddie Mercury. But it is the power of Queen’s music — the rousing good cheer, its sheer rock ’n’ roll joy — that fills up this pure brash entertainment.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Queen
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

At first I thought, Oh no, a movie about Queen — or, really, about Freddie Mercury — that is suitable for tweens? How could a 12A/PG-13 movie possibly do justice to his story? And, indeed, there’s a bit early on in Bohemian Rhapsody, a montage of performances from the band’s first big tours, during which they were performing their first big hits… and the lyrics of “Fat-Bottomed Girls” are muted, the cheers and screams of fans just so happening to swell over certain phrases in the song.

Friends, I groaned. I was primed for disappointment. But that feeling never returned, and Bohemian Rhapsody quickly won me over. There is enormous empathy for Mercury here, and the film never has to mute his complexity to earn that. But even more so, though, it’s the power of Queen’s music that filled me up: the rousing good cheer of it, its sheer rock ’n’ roll joy. There’s a scene midfilm in which Mercury is describing to a record-company executive his vision of the album that will become their A Night at the Opera, and he cheekily invokes “the unbridled joy of musical theater.” That’s what Bohemian Rhapsody is. It’s a Mamma Mia for Queen. It’s this year’s The Greatest Showman. And just as there is still very much a need for — and very much room for — a dark, gritty drama about P.T. Barnum, there is still no reason why we cannot also eventually get a dark, gritty drama about Freddie Mercury. I would like to see both such movies. But right now, the world is dark and gritty enough. Some unbridled joy is very welcome.

They will rock you...

They will rock you…

Not that Rhapsody avoids the more complicated matters of Mercury’s life, from the racism he faced as the child of Middle Eastern immigrants in London in the 1970s, to his homosexuality at a time when that was less accepted than it is now, to his later drug use and HIV diagnosis at what was perhaps the height of the hysteria about AIDS. As Mercury, Rami Malek (Need for Speed, Short Term 12) brings warmth and humor and a down-to-earth humanity to a figure who had already become larger than life before his death in 1991 (a few years after the film ends) and whose legend has only grown since. There may be plenty big and bold about this movie, but Malek’s Mercury is anything but a caricature. His is a portrait of a lonely misfit that avoids all the clichés of what Hollywood biopics in particular have long since rendered a familiar type. Malek is not singing as Mercury, which isn’t surprising: Mercury had an incredible voice with a literally awesome range, and it would almost impossible to find an actor who could portray him who could also pull off the singing. (I doubt we could find anyone, actor or not, who could sound like Mercury again. Apparently the voices of several singers had to be combined here to replicate Mercury’s voice.) But Malek brings so much passion in the musical sequences that you’d never know it.

Rather unexpectedly, there’s a sweet, gentle comedy zinging through Bohemian Rhapsody.
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And it is the music that makes Rhapsody such a wonderful, enrapturing treat. By the time the film culminates in Queen’s now-legendary performance at the charity concert Live Aid in July 1985, I was so primed for it that I broke down into blubbering sobs of bittersweet joy, for the music — damn, every single one of their songs is amazing — and for the loss of Mercury, and all the songs we never got.

Actor Michael Myers has said in the past that Queen loved what he did with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the song, in Wayne’s World — that now-iconic headbanging-in-the-car scene — because Myers was the first one to appreciate that the song was meant to be funny. Rather unexpectedly, a sweet, gentle comedy like Myers’s zings through Rhapsody the movie… most deliciously in how Myers himself (Shrek Forever After, Inglourious Basterds) appears as the EMI exec who pooh-poohs the idea of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That might be a tad obvious, but it’s a luscious cinematic full-circle. (The sequence in which the band records the song is also a hoot.)

Queen were the definitely champions of Live Aid.

Queen were the definitely champions of Live Aid.

This isn’t a perfect film. The production troubles that led to original director Bryan Singer (X-Men: Apocalypse, Jack the Giant Slayer) being fired, with the film finished by Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle), aren’t entirely invisible; there’s a bumpy roughness in spots, though those may also be issues with the script, by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour ) and Peter Morgan (Rush, 360). Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton: Murder on the Orient Express, Miss Potter), the woman with whom Mercury shared an unusual romance and who was his muse, gets short shrift… though that’s, alas, not unusual for the women in men’s stories. More surprising is how minimal the roles of the other members of Queen — bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello: G.I. Joe: Retaliation, The Social Network), guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee: The Tourist), and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy: Only the Brave, X-Men: Apocalypse) — are here.

So this is hardly the definitive Queen movie. That’s… fine. What we do get here is cheerworthy. From its very opening moments, during which the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare is performed, Queen-style, by the real May and Taylor, this is a terrific time at the movies, pure brash entertainment. It’s what we need right now.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.


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green light 4 stars

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Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) | directed by Bryan Singer, Dexter Fletcher
US/Can release: Nov 02 2018
UK/Ire release: Oct 24 2018

MPAA: rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate sex references, drug references, infrequent strong language)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Steve Gagen

    Sounds brilliant! Love the review – I think I’m going to share the joy of the music too. It’s what was important to Freddie – music was in his soul! Just a nitpick – describing him as a migrant from the Middle East might lead people to think he was Arabic. He was from a Parsi (Indian) family.

  • Bluejay

    Dang. I was going to skip this — because how could anyone hope to replicate Freddie’s unique awesomeness (or, for that matter, Elton’s unique awesomeness in the upcoming Rocketman, ALSO directed by Fletcher)? But now I’m gonna have to see it.

    Coincidentally, I’d been watching videos of Queen’s live performances of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Awesome as they were, I was disappointed that they always skipped over the opening “Is this the real life” harmonies and opted to play the studio recording of the “Mamma Mia” section rather than sing it live. I get how difficult it is, but it CAN BE DONE! Exhibit A, Lake Street Dive:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqEiWN44L3M

  • Tonio Kruger

    Another nitpick. India isn’t exactly in the Middle East.

  • Bluejay

    But the Parsi community in India originally comes from Persia/Iran, and thus has Middle Eastern roots.

  • Tonio Kruger

    D’oh! My bad.

  • Danielm80

    It amuses me more than it should that Peter Morgan worked on the screenplay. I keep imagining that he saw the word Queen and thought, “I can’t pass this up.” I also keep picturing Helen Mirren as Freddie Mercury—although the person I really want to see in the part is Meryl. She would have moved in with the Mercury family for a year, watched lost tapes of Freddie’s high school band performances, studied the art of mustache grooming, and found a way to play the role perfectly.

    I had planned to skip the movie, but based on the review, I may have to go see it, or I may just stay home and watch this over and over:

    https://youtu.be/J8r9HG09jfo

  • The movie makes his ethnicity and religion clear. There are plenty of people of Middle Eastern extraction who aren’t Arabic!

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    As I recall, the fact that the script was about Freddie, and not about the band, is why May and Taylor were so opposed to it for so long. Even now, I think they’re lukewarm at best. (Deacon retired from public life years ago.) I suppose they’re consoling themselves with the money they make performing as Queen+Adam Lambert (who is a surprisingly adequate substitute for Freddie).

  • For me Queen is like the Rolling Stones. Both make music that I absolutely abhor and don’t really understand why they are liked so much. I don’t know a single song from either band that I like even a little bit. I can’t change the station fast enough. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t think Freddie had crazy talent. Of course he did. They all did/do. They just made so many obnoxious songs. Ugh. IMNSHO, of course.
    Anyway I know I’m not the audience for this at all and I will never ever g near this. Kind of like that awful looking Greatest Showman movie. Or the Mama Mia movies. Singing movies are just not my jam.

  • Fortunately, viewing this or any other movie is not mandatory. :-)

  • But it’s not like this movie is called, I dunno, *Freddie!* or something. It is ostensibly positioned as a movie about Queen, but it really isn’t.

  • David_Conner

    I was slightly disappointed that the movie didn’t cover Flash Gordon, but the more I read, the more I think an epic movie could be made solely about the making of that film.

    Back to this movie, one of my favorite lines and deliveries in recent memory is from the “trying to get the band back together” scene, where Freddie tells them his old manager/assistant/lover/whatever Paul won’t be around anymore.

    Someone asks something like “What was the reason you let him go?” And Freddie’s reply: “Villainy.”

  • Haven’t seen the movie – probably won’t until it’s on cable, too busy right now – but I’ve seen the clip of the band working out the foot stomp to “We Will Rock You” and that scene itself is brilliant. Coming up with an audience participation song that just uses claps and foot stomps. Turning into a stadium anthem playable at every type of event from concerts to sports. Football games – both types – would never be the same again.

  • Leann

    Brian and Roger were heavily invoked with this movie and they both liked it.

  • Bluejay

    So I just saw this and quite enjoyed it. Yeah, the film is a bit slow and clunky in parts, but Malek as Mercury is absolutely captivating every time he’s onscreen. I was blown away by how faithful they were to the actual Live Aid performance, down to Mercury’s gestures, ad libs, and the occasional cracked note. Bonus: I didn’t know that he owned SO MANY CATS. If you like closeups of cats purring, lounging about, and staring judgmentally at you on a giant screen, this is the film to see. :-)

    When the band mentioned Elton John sometime near the beginning of the film, I remembered again that a biopic of EJ is coming next year (by the same director as this film), and that EJ played Live Aid too. I think they should make biopics of several other Live Aid artists (U2, Bowie, Zeppelin, etc) and then come out with a big Live Aid movie starring the same actors from the individual films. It could be the launch of the LTCRCU — the Late Twentieth Century Rock Cinematic Universe — with Bob Geldof in the Nick Fury role: “You think you’re the only rock star? Mr. Mercury, you’ve just become part of a bigger band lineup, you just don’t know it yet. I’m here to talk to you about the Live Aid initiative.”

    I recently read this transcript of a Fresh Air interview with Brian May. Lots more details on how they recorded songs like “Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You.” Plus astrophysics!

    https://www.npr.org/2018/11/09/666197208/queen-guitarist-brian-may-on-writing-anthems-and-studying-astrophysics

  • Bluejay

    Apparently the voices of several singers had to be combined here to replicate Mercury’s voice.

    This, apparently, is the main guy they used in the voice mix. Excuse me while I pick my jaw up from the floor.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNmnieRTNOk

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkCxE2Lh458

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