Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Freddie Mercury was a beautiful, beautiful man. He had the voice of an angry angel and the strut of a smirking devil. The songs he created with his band, Queen, have already entered the hall of ages. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an exuberant celebration of the man and the music.

But not just Mercury himself.

One of the things I appreciated about the film, directed by Bryan Singer from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, is that’s not a simple biopic of the lead singer. The other three members of the band -- lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) -- are fully represented as living, breathing people and not just “the other guys.” They regard Mercury as a brother and equal, and aren’t shy about calling out his self-centered behavior.

Rami Malek embodies the soul of Mercury, capturing his ineluctable showmanship onstage and retiring nature off it. For the songs, the filmmakers combined Malek’s vocals with those of Mercury and Marc Martel, a professional sound-alike. It’s an effective innovation, sounding like Mercury’s own voice while authentic enough to not seem like just canned playback.

The story follows Mercury for about 15 years, from a kid of Persian ethnicity who moved from Tanzania to the U.K. as a teenager, to the height of his fame and ego. It’s a mesmerizing, bravura performance by Malek, one that I hope is remembered during the awards season.

We witness Queen evolve from a college pub band into something more, selling their touring van to pay for studio time to cut an album. Born to conservative parents and with a protruding overbite caused by extra teeth, Mercury hungers to break out of his assigned role.

He wanted to play for the weirdos in the back of the room, because he was one.

Fame and fortune soon followed, but Mercury was kept grounded for many years by the companionship of Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), his onetime fiancĂ© and for whom he wrote “Love of My Life.” Eventually he came out to her as bisexual, which ended their romance but not their friendship.

Queen deliberately blurred gender lines in their act, slapping each other’s bums and dressing in drag for a music video. At a time when being openly gay could literally be fatal, they toyed with our proscribed notions of attraction and thereby made breaking them seem less dangerous.

The movie contains many of the hallmarks of the rock movie -- shady producers, spats between the band, a sycophantic personal manager (a slimy Allen Leech) who worms his way into the star’s life and sows the seeds of dissension.

But the film never feels rote or predictable. We celebrate the live recreation of Queen performances -- if you don’t inadvertently start stamping your feet during “We Will Rock You,” you can’t be helped -- and marvel at the collaborative creativity that went into making them.

We don’t just feel like we’re observing Queen, but have been invited inside the bubble.

(Note: Singer was fired with two weeks left in production and replaced by Dexter Fletcher; however, the Director’s Guild awarded him sole credit.)

There are two mirrored shots near the beginning and end that encapsulate the film. They chronicle the moment when Queen was about to take the stage for the massive Live Aid concert in 1985, which was their big reunion after a split of several years. Both follow Mercury as he strides from his trailer through the backstage area and then prepares to leap out of the curtains to a live crowd in the hundreds of thousands, and a television audience of over a billion.

In the first, the camera follows Mercury alone from behind. We appreciate his singular flamboyant personality and eagerness to bask in the wave of adulation. In the second, the rest of the band follows him as together they take the stage as a group. In the first, he is Freddie, a virtuoso; in the second he is part of Queen, a legend.

That’s the lesson of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Even those blessed with superstar talent need others to reach their ultimate potential. Freddie Mercury found his onstage by joining his abilities with others, and offstage by looking to people who cared about him as a person rather than just as a rock god. I can’t wait to watch this movie again, and again.

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