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A Queen superfan’s review of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

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Like many a British Gen X-er, I inhaled Queen almost from birth. “Killer Queen” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” were played on the radio all the time from my first two years of life onwards. Flash Gordon (1980) and Highlander (1986), two movies that are probably now best remembered as extended Queen music videos, rocked my childhood and early teens respectively. 

After the latter, my friends and I shared and memorized Queen’s entire back catalog. Losing myself in the sonic fantasy landscapes and angelic harmonies of albums like Queen II or Sheer Heart Attack or Night at the Opera in parentally unapproved, post-bedtime, big-headphone listening: this was my happy place. Even the band’s mid-career so-so album-filler tracks are still in heavy rotation in the DJ booth in my head. 

All of which is to explain why there’s no way in hell I can write a neutral, objective cinematic review of Bohemian Rhapsody, the Rami Malek-led Queen biopic with a troubled production history, which releases nationwide Friday. Where this movie is concerned, I have no chill. 

Instead, this a review for my fellow Queen superfans — the people who will be irked by details like whether a song is introduced too soon or invented years too late in Queen chronology. Unfortunately, this is what happens at least three times in the film. (A future post will get into these and many more sloppy musical mistakes in the movie; for now I’ll leave them for you to spot.) 

As with those two Queen-scored movies of my childhood, it is best to treat Bohemian Rhapsody as an extended music video. Don’t expect much more and you’ll have a fine time. A lot of attention has been lavished on the sound. Make sure you watch it in a theater with the best possible bass-heavy speaker system. This is a movie to be felt as much as heard.

if you can’t handle the movie at its campy worst, you don’t deserve it at its transcendent best

And seen? Sure, seen as well. Most of the time. That is, if you don’t put too high a price on coherence and character depth and are not the type to wince at music biopic cliches or self-referential jokes by Mike Myers, whose attempt at a comedic turn as a music label executive really is the weakest link here. 

But hey, if you can’t handle the movie at its campy, shallow, detail-inventing worst, you don’t deserve it at its transcendent, tear-jerking, era-defining best — or as you’ll come to think of it, the last half hour.

Teeth and eyes

Let’s deal with the unusually incisor-filled elephant in the room. Rami Malek is a very plausible Freddie Mercury … in all music-related scenes. He’s too small and wiry, but he’s got the stage strut thing down. 

He’s pretty good at imitating Freddie’s speaking voice, too, and it actually helps that the film uses Freddie’s singing voice (in all but a few brief party-trick moments). It also makes one big meta reference early on to lip-syncing on the BBC’s famous fake-live music show Top of the Pops

The overall effect of Malek’s musical segments reminded me of the charming video for an awful late-era Queen single, The Miracle, in which an adorable kid pulls on the leotards from all Freddie’s fashion eras and lip-syncs his way through a hardworking homage. You just want to pat him on the head. 

As for the (mercifully brief) biographical scenes, it’s a mixed bag. Friends and colleagues who saw the film before me warned me of Malek’s prosthetic teeth, but on their own they actually seemed the most Mercurial thing about him. 

The bigger problem is Malek’s eyes, highly powerful acting tools that he uses so well in other contexts. Freddie’s peepers were small and piercing. Malek is intent on widening his to show the vulnerability in the lonely singer’s heart — or possibly his own fear at having to portray such a widely-loved larger-than-life character. 

An interesting choice, but mix the eyes and the teeth and the result often sidles right up to the line of unintentionally ridiculous. 

This is where a more checked-in director might have made a difference, but by all accounts Bryan Singer was not that; Dexter Fletcher took the uncredited role of cleaning up after Singer’s no-show and firing, and it seems he’s done the best he can short of a lengthy Ron Howard-style reshoot

The disjointed nature of the script doesn’t help. I won’t spoil any of it, but what’s odd from the superfan’s perspective is the drama it misses out. For example, you’d think from the film that the largely affable John Reid (played by Aiden Gillan, aka Littlefinger) was Queen’s first manager. In fact, he was their second. 

The band had knock-down, drag-out fights over money with their manager for their first three albums prior to Reid. This was the man about whom Freddie wrote the Night at the Opera opener “Death on Two Legs” — a “shark” and a “sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride.” Now that seems a role worthy of Littlefinger’s talents. 

Bohemian Rhapsody II: The Show Must Go On

The movie does not really whitewash Mercury’s gay partners or his AIDS diagnosis as some fans feared, though it doesn’t much linger on them either. And it’s not really a spoiler for the superfan (but just in case, spoiler alert!) to say that the movie ends with Live Aid in 1985. 

I wouldn’t want you to go in the theater expecting the actual end of the Queen story, the highs of Highlander and A Kind of Magic and the poignant decline of the Miracle and Innuendo era. 

When Freddie died of pneumonia from AIDS in 1991, it came as a profound shock to many, myself included. Even as we literally saw him dying while entertaining us, becoming more gaunt and wistful in every music video, many fans didn’t want to believe the evidence of their own eyes. Loyally we believed his statements that denied the tabloid stories, until the very end. 

Perhaps, should Bohemian Rhapsody do really well at the box office, there’s a slower, more focused, more entirely truthful sequel to be made. 

But still, it’s hard to fault the film for ending on Live Aid, because, well, Live Aid. This was the best and most important concert in my generation’s lifetime, as well as the best and most important 20 minutes of Queen’s life, and to see it so lovingly recreated was a nostalgia-fest unlike no other. 

I’m not ashamed to say I cried at the audience tracking shot during “Radio GaGa”. As I mentioned: absolutely no chill. 

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