Farrokh Bulsara's (Rami Malek) traditional Parsi Indian parents (Ace Bhatti and Meneka Das) aren't pleased that he calls himself Freddie and spends his time going to London clubs, but he knows he's destined for something big. When Smile, the band he's gone to see, loses their lead singer, Freddie auditions on the spot, surprising guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, "X-Men: Apocalypse") with the four octave range he claims is the result of the four extra incisors which have pushed his front teeth forward. A mere five years later, with three albums and world tours under their belt, Freddie would defy their record label by sneaking Queen's six minute rock opera to a DJ who played "Bohemian Rhapsody."
So after losing star Sasha Baron Cohen over creative differences with surviving band members and the firing of credited director Bryan Singer ("X-Men: Apocalypse") over on set chaos and absences, the Freddy Mercury movie finally arrives. While Cohen's take may have been intriguing (he wanted to delve into Mercury's darker side) there is no denying the magnetism of Rami Malek's performance. You cannot take your eyes off him. But the film he inhabits, scripted by "Darkest Hour's" Anthony McCarten, is mostly a paint-by-the-numbers affair, hopscotching from one important event to the next with little pause for reflection. Freddie finds the 'love of his life' Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, "Sing Street") working in Biba and voila, she creates his glam rock image on the spot. Queen simply zooms to success. Freddie's personal life takes a hit when he realizes he's attracted to men. The band takes a hit when Freddie goes astray under the influence of his 'villainous' lover Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), signing on to a solo contract. Freddie learns his lesson and begs the band to take him back, sharing his AIDS diagnosis on the eve of the 1985 Live Aid concert (that diagnosis came years later). The band never interacts with any of their musical peers, not even famous collaborators like David Bowie or Elton John. The sexually voracious Mercury's story has been hamstrung by the movie's PG-13 rating, one fumbled crotch grab the most daring move beyond a kiss, cocaine use heard but not seen.
Where the film soars is during its musical numbers, the complex recording of the film's titular song a midpoint highlight that breaks down the multiple sessions and methods used to achieve it. And thankfully, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello ("Jurassic Park") as bassist John Deacon are all distinct, the band's familial dynamics a frequent source of humor, their individual musical achievements all given their due. The film is also the second in so many months to feature the performers' point of view from the stage, Singer's recreation of Queen's Live Aid performance capturing its immensity and power (there is a second connection to "A Star Is Born" in that Lady Gaga took her name from a Queen song). When Freddie is typically late to a recording session, May begins to form the stomping call and response of "We Will Rock You" to honor their fan participation. Freddie arrives and rolls with it. These guys have their spats, but otherwise seem one of the most conflict free bands ever, four misfits playing to other misfits.
So it comes as quite the surprise when Freddie announces the $4 million solo deal that breaks up the band, especially as we've seen him fire assistant John Reid (Aidan Gillen, "Sing Street") when it was first brought up (Paul, who'd brought the deal to Reid, weasels his way out of Freddie's suspicion). How did this come to pass? "Bohemian Rhapsody" doesn't have the answer and Freddie's years of bad behavior are all wrapped up in a splash of newspaper headlines and the rough trade Paul brings home the night Freddie finally throws him out.
The one aspect of Mercury's life that this film sheds some light on is his lifelong bond with Mary, the woman he proposed to and always considered his soulmate. When Freddie buys his Kensington mansion, Mary's still next door, the lonely singer signalling her with a window lamp. Everything is also neatly wrapped between them when each finds a new partner, Mary bringing David (Max Bennett) to Live Aid, Freddie looking up Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), the catering waiter who advised him to like himself first.
With the exception of the immersive Live Aid concert recreation and the wittily edited Rhapsody recording session, the movie is a relatively straightforward, slick production. One press conference, when the media attempts to out Mercury, is shot like a nightmare. Malek is the film's best visual, strutting like a peacock, lithe yet commanding. His diction may be pushed to a more alien register, but somehow it all works with Mercury's theatrical presence. Julian Day's ("Pride and Prejudice and Zombies") costume design is another key player. In a bit of inspired in joking, the fictional EMI exec who refuses to make 'Rhapsody' a single is played by Mike Myers, who famously belted out the tune in "Wayne's World." In fairness, I am the most casual of Queen fans, but Malek is so good here, I think I'd rather watch him playing Freddie Mercury than Freddie Mercury himself.
Robin did not see this film.
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