1970. Living in London studying design, young Zanzibar-born Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek) aspires to be a musician. He notices student band ‘Smile’ in need of a new front man after their lead drops out. ‘Smile’ drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) take a chance with Bulsara, who in turn changes his name to Freddie Mercury.
The band hire bass player John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) and become ‘Queen’, starting a new era of rock throughout the 1970s. Experimental and non-conformist, they are managed by John Reid (Aiden Gillen), PA Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and lawyer Jim Beach (Tom Hollander).
With life-long friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) trying to support him, Freddie excels in a whirlwind of fame and scandal into the 1980s, putting strains on himself and the band. Relationships are tested as Freddie and ‘Queen’ discover just who they are, what they want, and how they will get it before they fall apart forever…
Many roads in pop culture lead back to the band Queen one way or another. From stadium anthems such as ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ to movie soundtracks such as ‘Flash Gordon’ and ‘Highlander’, the gay and lesbian scene fronting Freddie Mercury as nothing but an inspiration and generations new and old discovering their music. Making a 2hr 20min movie about such a band who dominated the music industry from 1972 to 1991 with a lasting legacy that only seems to get stronger was never going to be easy. And not everyone was going to be happy.
You also have to count the fact that the behind the scenes stories and scandals, as with any celebrity group or individual, are often more intriguing than a stage persona. Never a truer word said when you look at Freddie Mercury and Queen. The biopic that was plagued by development problems as far back as 2010 with casting conflicts, director changes and artistic disagreements, it finally landed and tells the stories you know and some you may not between the formation of Queen in 1972 through to the Live Aid concert of 1985.
13 years packed into 150min – what do you pick out? Who do you focus on? What stories do you tell? What scandal do you highlight?
For a film overwhelmed by production nightmares, going back to 2010, and then sadly overshadowed by sexual assault allegations against former director Bryan Singer – soon replaced by Dexter Fletcher, director of 2019 Elton John biopic ‘Rocketman’ – it’s safe to say many assumed the story of British rock band Queen and their frontman Freddie Mercury would never get off the ground. But, as Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury does to EMI execs, we salute the controversy and the doubters with a royal two fingers to prove that critical lambasting and the dark actions of others can be overcome. It can be overcome by those individuals with great talent, passion for their art and respect for the source material who all deserve to be supported. This does not mean you, in turn, support the actions or behaviour of Bryan Singer but that argument is for another platform.
The film was created and always marketed as a foot-stomping celebration, and it is nothing but.
If you come to this film expecting nothing but historical accuracy and every little fact that added to the 13 years we see on screen develop, you’ll be disappointed. This is not a film to pick apart and focus on the darker side of Freddie and Queen in their highs and lows of stardom. What casual fans don’t know won’t affect their understanding of the story. What hard-core fans know will not have a place in a, generally, family-friendly film, and they should know why. There are enough hard-hitting and solemn moments in this film highlighting important factors without it being gratuitous, uncomfortable or even disrespectful. Who are we to say what is true or accurate made bias on our love for such a band as Queen. Those who know the men and the music best helped the story come to light, so for that I take this as a good indicator of some truth to the tale, sugared by entertainment value.
It’s painfully obvious there is so much material omitted here because Freddie Mercury lived a scandalous, media-hounded life in his prime. From booze and drug-fuelled parties, his private path on homosexuality, intricate creativity, and a decadent lifestyle, he was certainly no saint, but he most certainly wasn’t a sinner. He cared for those close to him, he wanted to do nothing but love and be loved in return. He wanted to be a performer. So naturally, this Hollywood look at his life sugar coats some things, pushes others to the side and bolsters the leading man persona front and centre; while it no means ignores things, it doesn’t spend much time going too deep into them. I personally found this perfectly acceptable.
As a film made for both dedicated and casual Queen fans, and also cinema-goers, the content is carefully selected to only tease the surface of what Freddie and Queen were about and what cracks formed in their relationships. It certainly helped me connect a few dots, and I’ve been a Queen fan for near 20 years. It also gave me motives to dig deeper, delve into more in-depth biographies and media to discover more. In that respect, if people want more, they can scroll pages of Wikipedia or read many books and see documentaries. This is a film for all ages and fans, nothing more. They want to go in expecting to see and hear the man and band they know from popular culture, and they’ll leave understanding just who they are. It’s not a factual music documentary – it is entertaining cinema.
Rami Malek can’t be praised enough as Freddie. From 1970 to 1985, he grows as Freddie from aspiring musician, creative genius and show-stopping performer. He evolves on screen and you’re hooked from the start in this journey. From the subtle movements of his lips on the prosthetic overbite (akin to the subtle movements of Heath Ledger and his lips in ‘The Dark Knight’), to the way he talks, looks, walks….he’s the peacock strutting across the stage enjoying what he does and how he does it. But he is fragile; Malek doesn’t simply homage Mercury in flamboyant suits and semi-dubbed musical numbers. No, Malek embodies the real man struggling to both adapt and adjust in a very uncertain and scary world. His journey is nothing short of enjoyable, inspiring and moving in places and Malek is a superb actor to showcase this.
The film has nothing but respect for the family and friends of Freddie in depicting his less than easy journey through celebrity, and this is what caused many critics and fans to frown upon it. They wanted to see the man’s demons. They wanted to see more dark debauchery in his cocaine-fuelled parties and see his gay orgies that led to his contracting of HIV. They wanted to see more fights, more fall-outs, more pain, and more darkness.
If I were a lifelong friend of Freddie Mercury, a man who doesn’t NEED a biopic for his dark side to be known to many, then I would not want to make this cinematic voyeurism into such a world. If you need to know the dark depths of stories you’ve heard about, read one of the many biographies out there. Be a Paul Prenter and dig us as much as you can on his darker, fragile side.
Kudos to the ones following in Malek’s shadow but by all means get their moments to shine as the friends and bandmates who guided and directed their own path. Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee and Joe Mazzello nail their representations perfectly as Roger Taylor, Brian May and John Deacon. From body language, to the way they speak to their relationships forged, each young actor captures the little things, as Malek does, that make them unique. From playing their instruments in more than convincing ways to having that friendship grow, the four gel perfectly.
With support from Tom Hallander who you can’t help but admire as Jim Beach, Allen Leech as the deceptive and selfish Paul Prenter and Mike Myers as EMI exec Ray Foster who deems ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as a song that “kids can’t rock out to in their cars”, this is a top-notch cast who embody their roles and tick all the right boxes as the figures who made Queen what they were, for good or bad reasons. Lucy Boynton is Mary Austin, the long-term friend and one-time lover of Freddie who is his one true love, his rock and support. She gives just as much as Malek in crafting a journey of someone affected by the environment and people surrounding them, and she has a wonderful air to her that is easy to see why Freddie gravitated to her and kept her close for the rest of his life. A beautiful, and important, performance.
Charting 15 years of the band’s life and career was never going to please everyone. The stories we hear from tabloids and reports won’t all be featured in a family-friendly film that has been, to be fair, made in a way to honour and help preserve a man’s legacy rather than pull it apart. It introduces enough demons for us to face without shaming Freddie or painting Queen in a negative like apart from the cracks that show, the arguments that fester and the clash of morals. Freddie was no villain and certainly not disrespected here as a man who isn’t afraid to make hard choices when his ego forces him too. The man on stage is very different to the man at home. There are some chronological discrepancies too, but nothing that deters from the overall story (‘We Will Rock You’ seemingly written in 1980 when it was actually 1977 for instance). But this serves to only progress the story without bloating the narrative on every little moment in every year they were going.
There was little I felt untouched looking at the film as a general fan and trying to imagine being one who knows a little about Queen and their legacy. This offers an insight into the hidden life they lived without feeling the need to sit us down for nine hours and tell us every little fault, little failure, little fantastic fact. It’s bitesize, but it’s more than enough to help people understand these British legends.
Standing tall (maybe even taller) than the story and cast is the soundtrack and musical numbers. Concerts from Rio, America, and England are all recreated in a scarily authentic fashion, with no expense spared to front the accurate costumes, movements and stage set-up. It’s glam and it’s toe-tapping and it’s feel good. Every beat of the drum and slap of the bass will stir emotions in your body and you’ll find it hard not to be moved by their music and seeing a near-perfect representation on stage.
As for the 1985 Live Aid finale? Well, thankfully it’s not just a cut-and-paste 20-minute copy of the set; it’s a trimmed down version that focuses not just on the performers but the audiences and managers who are as moved as the music as we are. It adds a whole new depth to the performance when you see the hurdles overcome to get there, and it’s a rousing, fist-pumping and perfectly executed rendition of one of THE greatest live rock performances in history. And Rami Malek goes above and beyond to be utterly flawless in a portrayal that looks as effortless to him as breathing. The editing is as frantic at times as the band itself on stage but it’s unpolished and not perfect, like our lead characters. It’s not a polished and perfect film at all – but it is honest and passionate about the story. Behind the film are a cast and crew of hundreds, each of whom has put heart and soul into it. They deserve to feel applauded and praised out of Bryan Singer’s dark shadow, and also to Dexter Fletcher coming in to finish the production.
You get the idea by now. I totally love and respect Queen as a band and Freddie as a man. In turn, I have fallen in love with this film. Sure, in a selfish world I would have loved a longer runtime. I would have loved to explore more years, more stories, more relationships such as his romance with Jim Hutton, but we have a restricted timeline and I KNOW that the six years following Live Aid were even more defining and emotional for the band; I just wish we could have a follow-up film exploring that and beyond because they certainly did this interpretation justice.
I didn’t come to watch this film for a demonic ride through the scandals of Freddie Mercury and the darker side of Queen – the hostility of Roger or the solo aspirations and temper of Brian – no, I came to celebrate the four performers who changed the music industry for the better. I was introduced to stories and events I wasn’t aware of, but certainly have made an impact on me going forward and just stoked my desire to read more about Freddie and his career in depth. The film is more radical, a little more daring, a little more outrageous and controversial when it comes to the very unexpected but well-deserved awards haul and grossing over $900m at the world box office. It came out of nowhere and left a very loud and impressive mark on people– just like Freddie Mercury.
But what, you ask, makes ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ any different from all the other wannabe ‘Decade Definers’ you’ve been reading about? I’ll tell you what it is.
It’s a misfit, contending with films you wouldn’t think belong together, and made for all the other misfits. The outcast’s right at the back of the cinema who are pretty sure they don’t belong either.
It’s a love letter to Freddie fucking Mercury and Queen.
It’s a celebration of their music, their creativity and their legacy on British music.
It’s a kind of magic.