When a film has as long and troubled a production history as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic first announced in 2010, it doesn’t bode well for a satisfying final product.
Even more ominous, when the film’s first trailer devoted much of its screen time to his relationship with long-term female partner Mary Austin, there was widespread concern over whether the movie was going to “straightwash” Mercury, who never publicly declared his sexual orientation despite his flamboyant stage persona, but spent the last years of his life with a same-sex partner before dying of complications from AIDS in 1991.
There’s good news to report on both fronts.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” despite its difficult birthing process, is as slick and entertaining as anyone could reasonably hope. Better still, it puts Freddie’s sexual identity front and center.
The film tracks Queen from Mercury’s entry to the band in 1970, through their rise to superstardom to their appearance at Live Aid in 1985. Within that context, it follows Mercury’s relationships with significant others, fame and sexuality and his struggle toward self-acceptance, culminating in the HIV diagnosis that would eventually end his life.
It’s the charting of that journey that makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” more than just a crowd-pleaser. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten portrays the singer as the product of a devout religious upbringing — deeply closeted, perhaps even in denial about his sexual nature, despite his boundary-pushing presentation and personality — for whom fame affords both the temptation and the freedom to explore his taboo longings. His struggle to embrace himself for who he truly is becomes an integral part, if not the central focus, of the film’s narrative.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” presents Mercury as he famously was: private, closely guarded and wary about public perception. For all the bombastic theatricality of his stage persona, he was an introvert offstage, a contrast the movie conveys well thanks to the performance of its star, Rami Malek.
Malek, though at times somewhat hampered by the prosthetic teeth required to simulate the singer’s famously massive overbite, fully inhabits the role and delivers a heartfelt and insightful portrayal that honors Freddie’s legacy and his truth. He shines brightest in the recreations of Queen’s live performances, capturing Mercury’s electrifying onstage presence with every move and gesture painstakingly choreographed but executed with as much spontaneity as if they were his own.
The cast is top notch. There are too many fine performances to single out here, but special mention is deserved for Lucy Boynton, whose tender performance as Austin helps illuminate the deep and genuine bond she shared with Mercury throughout his life, and for Tom Hollander’s delightfully dry turn as Queen manager Jim Beach. Also fun is a barely recognizable Mike Myers as EMI executive Ray Foster.
As for the movie’s approach to its larger story, the rise of Queen to fame and fortune is presented with a flashy showmanship fitting of the group’s over-the-top style. It also packs in a lot of information, perhaps too much. Like most biopics, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is handicapped by the need to tell an entire life story in an impossibly short time and it fails to avoid the usual flaws —elisions, conflations, contrivances and clichés. It has an inescapable “Hollywood” feel that tends to undermine any sense of authenticity.
But with extensive participation of the band’s surviving members as well as their manager, there’s still a ring of truth, albeit a polished and simplified one, and most audiences are not likely to quibble over formula when a film is as entertaining as this one. Slickly packaged, lavishly produced, full of exuberant energy and good-natured high spirits, it’s an impossible film not to get caught up in.