The buckteeth, prominent and in-your-face, fitted in Mr. Robot Rami Malek’s mouth to complete his Freddie Mercury face, is distracting. The protruding two front teeth feel phony, but nevertheless captivating.
Ugly teeth didn’t stop Mercury from showing the world that it needed him. And director Bryan Singer’s (who was fired in the middle of the production and replaced by Dexter Fletcher) biopic of the legendary rock star showed just that — a gifted man who was creatively unstoppable, breaking formula and conventions, and flamboyantly strutting onto the world stage to give himself and his audience a fantastic time.
Bohemian Rhapsody is getting mixed reviews. It’s criticized for being too mild, safe and kid-friendly. Not hardcore enough to match the larger-than-life Mercury. It’s true. It’s a PG-13 fare, almost Disneyfied. Dialed down, way down, so tweens can also witness the beginnings of one of the greatest rock bands in history.
The movie may not be great, but it’s not bad. To cut to the chase, it’s the powerful ending that rescued this movie from becoming downright bad. The tail-end of the second act up to the final act come together beautifully, leading to a stunning finale.
The essential problem with Bohemian Rhapsody is the fragmented storytelling. The true-to-life tale is presented like mere bullet points of Queen’s history — a crash course on the band’s genesis and a perfunctory timeline of Queen’s rise to fame. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten just breezes through the basic facts, taking annoying, frustrating shortcuts.
The movie lacks build-up as if you’re watching short previews, with each sequence ending with an anticlimactic fade-out — disconnected from one another. It’s uncertain whether the film is afraid to show more, or the filmmakers are not even fans of Queen.
The film’s lazy historical timeline, however, still manages to give you a grasp of the genius of Mercury and Queen. There is still thrill and excitement — albeit thrown at you like bread crumbs. We are offered glimpses of the formation and inspiration of each classic hit but they are played like iTunes previews, leaving you shortchanged.
But it’s not all that bad before the final act. The movie has several emotionally generous scenes, such as the hilarious debate with EMI executive Ray Forster (a Mike Myer in disguise) on the merits of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The camera also gives a microscopic view of the closest people surrounding Mercury, particularly his great love, Mary (an excellent Lucy Boynton), and his “villainous” manager/lover, Paul (Allen Leech).
The camera oftentimes singles Mary and Paul out as surveyors, plunging us to the depths of their eyes, which mirror ours, reflecting a mix of awe and scrutiny. Some of the best scenes are Paul and Mary watching Mercury from afar, beholden and wonderstruck, their wordless admiration so subtle, their micro-expression trumping words.
We are entranced with Mercury because of Malek’s luminous portrayal. And if the film lacks an in-depth examination of Mercury, it compensates for its illustration of the nature of great talent. The movie captures Mercury’s face lighting up when creative inspiration strikes; Mercury reduced to tears when he has created something that he is gut-certain will touch the world — moved and astounded by this gift that possesses him, and the movie at least allows us to realize his destiny along with him.
Great casting, with the rest of the Queen looking almost identical to the real-life members — lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bass guitarist John Deacon (Jurassic Park’s Joseph Mazzello, all grown-up and unrecognizable). The movie efficiently depicts their strong dynamics, the singular vision of Queen’s ever-changing identity, and the all-consuming desire to produce music as an interactive experience, music that breaks the rules.
The remark that Bohemian Rhapsody is too sterile to be interesting is not entirely true. The film intentionally avoids graphic depictions of hedonism and Mercury’s decadent lifestyle, but it’s not to say that we do not comprehend Mercury’s confusion, searing loneliness and sexual identity crisis. The film doesn’t have the need to glamorize substance abuse and promiscuousness. No need to spoon-feed the audience by showing Mercury snorting cocaine, or having sex with men. We understand his lifestyle, and that is enough.
If the first act is out of tune, the second and third act evolve into perfect beat and rhythm. As soon as Mercury suspects he has AIDS, followed by his apologetic, awkward reunion with Queen, and tethering to a drifting Mary — the sorrowful scenes of him switching his lamp on by the window to connect with the love of his life — the movie becomes riveting.
The movie ends with the 1985 Live Aid benefit concert — a stunningly accurate reenactment of Queen’s 20-minute performance, which is dubbed as the greatest live performance in history. Malek is a hundred-percent Freddie Mercury here, prowling onstage with astounding command — a magnetic pull to a crowd of gazillions, each member of the audience enraptured by the man and his brilliant music. This will make you choke back tears and is enough reason to re-watch the movie.
Eventually, it no longer matters that Bohemian Rhapsody refuses to dig the dirt on Mercury or tear apart his persona, because, in the end, you understand that what matters is Freddie Mercury’s contribution to the world—and the film makes sure you remember that fact. It brings Mercury back to life on that final act, a prophet sent to us to spread the gospel of his soul-stirring music and gaining cult following. And Malek’s performance rocks you to the core — he alone is a living, cinematic tribute to a rock god.
3 out of 5 stars