Film Review: Rami Malek Anchors A Turbulent “Bohemian Rhapsody”

“Somebody to Love,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions,” the list goes on really. For those of us born in the 90s, the band Queen is just a tad before our time, but if any of these songs sound familiar then you must recognize that Queen’s songs are deeply imbedded in pop culture. 

Queen's famous lead singer, Freddie Mercury was played by Rami Malek who made a name for himself through the hit TV show Mr. Robot. The show is widely popular, don’t get me wrong, but this is Malek’s first film in which he has a major role. For many, Bohemian Rhapsody is Malek’s introduction to the world, and he's coming in with a bang. 

Malek as Mercury is utterly astounding. Unfortunately, I have never seen Mercury perform live, though I read that he was energetic, lively and captivating on stage. Malek did an impressive job capturing these qualities, even from his muscular backside in the film's opening scene. Malek mentions in several interviews while promoting the movie that they filmed the Live Aid performance first, but there isn’t a hint of nerves as he takes the stage with confidence, ambition and energy radiating from him. For the entire time Queen is on stage, you can’t take your eyes off of him. 

During Mercury’s moments of solitude, Malek looks harrowed and terribly vulnerable, perhaps even a bit crazed. In his deft, skilled hands, Malek carries the audience through the movie’s storyline and into Mercury’s lonely, isolated mind. 

In the early days, when Mercury was still Farrokh Bulsara, he is wonderfully relatable. Awkward and a bit shy, sporting long locks to try to fit in while breaking convention with his gender-bending fashion, he looks a lot like us. He has his insecurities: buck teeth and Parsi ethnicity, yet his strengths, a breathtaking voice with ridiculous range and an ambition that refuses to be quenched, more than outshine the insecurities. 

When Mercury finally meets Brian May and Roger Taylor, after months of admiring them, he seems like a doe-eyed kid who’s all talk and big dreams. He manages to impress them with his voice, and their first performance is painfully stinted and awkward. I loved every minute of it. It would make no sense that Queen was the Queen we know right from the start, and, even if it was somewhat fictionalized, it was lovely to see that Mercury’s signature improvised dance moves and favored broken microphone stand were there from the beginning.

After a beautiful start, the pacing of the film is frankly baffling. At times zipping through rather interesting parts too quickly or dragging on certain scenes, the movie mistakes quick pace for energy and excitement and importance for sluggishness. These combinations often do go hand-in-hand, but the way they are presented here felt off-beat and badly thought out. The latter part of the film, when Queen gets back together, the pacing rights itself, and the film plays out well enough to do justice to the story. 

It seemed odd that the pacing was so erratic until I did some post-film research, and found out that there were in fact two directors on this project. Bryan Singer had been the director until he was fired, then Dexter Fletcher was hired on to finish. Since there’s two different people handling the film, no wonder the movie’s pacing and tone literally shifts in the middle. 

Though much of the film focuses on Mercury’s life, Bohemian Rhapsody boasts a fantastic ensemble. Gwilym Lee as Brian May and Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor were a welcome comic duo to Mercury’s drama queen, and the right amounts of genius and sobriety to Mercury’s fiery ambition. My particular favorite is Joseph Mazzello who played John Deacon, Queen’s bass guitarist, who acts as the calm eye of the storm that is the clashing energies of the other three members of the band. 

Some of the film’s best scenes are when the ensemble’s chemistry shines, my favorite one being when Queen and its managers bullshit their way through a meeting with their record executive Ray Foster to convince him of A Night at the Opera's album concept. The band’s logic both makes no sense whatsoever and their insane genius comes to a head with the creation of that album in colorful, hilarious ways. 

The actors playing Queen’s various managers did fine jobs as well, though Allen Leech’s pleasant face as Mercury’s personal manager, Paul Prenter, does not seem to give justice to Prenter’s deeper manipulations of the singer. The most interesting of them was Jim Beach, played by Tom Hollander, who seemed to understand the band’s needs in contrast with Mercury’s own needs the most. His somber, no-nonsense personality was the perfect foil to Queen during its more tumultuous times. 

Like many others, I do wish the film had conveyed Mercury’s sexuality more conspicuously, for it was a bit unclear whether he had ever actually engaged in any sexual activity with Prenter and other men, or if it was all gossip. It also seems to blame Mercury’s AIDS contraction on these implied homosexual hook ups, which is just unfair. As for Mercury’s love life, Aaron McCusker as Mercury’s long term lover, Jim Hutton, was believable enough, a steady rock to the waves of Mercury’s inner turmoil. 

However, I found Mary Austin far more interesting. To define Austin as Mercury’s girlfriend is just too one-dimensional—lifelong friends, almost partners, seemed to only be the surface of it. Mercury, and the film’s storyline, depended on her deeply. Lucy Boynton plays Austin with a calm acceptance of Mercury’s insecurities and fun fashion. She overflows with love, romantic or not. As one of the only women in the movie, she is refreshing, much in the way Mercury must have regarded her presence. I kept waiting for her to come back on the screen to steer Mercury back in the right direction. 

One thing the film does right is, it gives proper time to Mercury’s immigrant origins. It could have been easy to forget Mercury’s Indian-British Parsi ethnicity, but the film thankfully reminds you often. Mercury’s insecurities, either as a fashionista, a gay man or a performer, are framed by his inner desire to make his family proud, especially his stern father. This is one of the more accurate portrayals of the immigrant experience: parents fiercely wishing for better lives for their children while the children try their best to live up to the parents’ expectations. The beauty of it is that nothing is ever voiced, but in the silent looks exchanged between Mercury and his family members, the tension solidifies. 

Despite its questionable pacing and differing tones, Bohemian Rhapsody is an enjoyable film. Does it have an underlying message about life? No, but it’s an homage to a deeply talented man and to the band Queen, which both carried Mercury and was carried by Mercury to worldwide fame. 

My father is a pretty big fan of Queen, yet probably to his grand dismay, I knew little to nothing about Queen the band before watching this film. For many, this may be their first real introduction to Queen and its music, and for a band that made history to the scale that it did, what better way to say hello?