We can begin at the end. As the credits of “Bohemian Rhapsody” roll, vintage footage of Queen performing “Don’t Stop Me Now” is shown, focused on a young, seemingly invincible Freddie Mercury. That song goes: “I’m burning through the sky/Two hundred degrees/That’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit/I’m traveling at the speed of light… Don’t stop me now.”
Those words are extremely fitting when it comes to the all-too-brief life of Queen’s front man, Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991 at the age of 45 from AIDS-related illness. His death was shattering—the world-famous singer had been in seclusion for years and his was one of the most prominent deaths due to the disease in its very early years of identification.
But as “Bohemian Rhapsody” shows us, Mercury’s life held as much significance as his tragic death. Though the movie is ostensibly about the band Queen (it’s essentially an authorized biographical film as Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Tayler are executive producers on the film), it really is about the rise and fall of Mercury.
Queen (formed in 1970 by Mercury, May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon) is one of the greatest acts in all of rock, truly pushing the boundaries of recorded music, with a legendary discography that includes the titular song, which makes its case for greatest rock anthem of all time. “Bohemian Rhapsody” takes the Queen story and delivers a condensed, somewhat fictionalized version of how the band tried to live up to the anthemic rock songs they created. It goes back to the band’s origin, as a baggage handler at Heathrow named Farrokh Bulsara (“Mr. Robot” himself, Rami Malek) joins up with astrophysics grad May (Gwylim Lee), former dentistry student Taylor (Ben Hardy) and electronic engineering grad Deacon (Joe Mazello) to form Queen, which struggles and then stoops to conquer as it becomes a daring musical entity. Along the way, Farouk transforms into the man known as Freddie Mercury. The movie charts the band’s behind-the-scenes drama—but the plotlines that rivet are those concerning Mercury’s private life. “Bohemian Rhapsody” discusses Mercury’s unusual though touching lifelong relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his shifting sexuality.
Aside from that, anyone who has seen a very good musical biopic (2005’s “Walk The Line” about Johnny Cash, 2004’s “Ray” about Ray Charles and 1985’s “Sid & Nancy” about Sid Vicious, among others) can sense what’s about to happen. Like those films, “Bohemian Rhapsody” focuses on the construction of several of Queen’s greatest hits, such as the title song, “We Will Rock You,” “Love of my Life” and “Another One Bites The Dust.”
The requisite song numbers vibrate with authenticity. It should be accepted fact that nobody can sound like Freddie Mercury save for Freddie Mercury. Thus, it be commended that the film simulates live Mercury performances using what sounds like 90 percent with Mercury’s actual vocals with a bit of a soundalike and just a tiny bit of Malek. The illusion is effective, as it sounds like a worthy approximation, and May’s virtuoso guitar work is also simulated. It will take considerable restraint from the audience to not turn a screening into a singalong session. But what then makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” more than a glorified two-hour music video from director Bryan Singer (“X-Men”) and writer Peter Morgan (Netflix’s “The Crown”)?
First is Live Aid. It’s hard to explain what Live Aid meant to modern audiences. Back in 1985, before the internet, the concert, which sought to raise funds for the African famine, was broadcast live to over a billion viewers around the world at two venues and served as a cultural touchstone for Generation X. A late addition to the roster, Queen—Mercury really—was the highlight of Live Aid, and may be the greatest live rock performance of all time.
The available video of that 20-minute performance has been dissected by rock diehards like the Zapruder film was by conspiracy theorists. “Bohemian Rhapsody” takes a large part of that performance and turns it into an immersive 360-degree experience, taking the viewer on and off stage as Mercury delivers his career-defining moment. It’s accurate down to the Pepsi cups on the piano and the movie treats the Wembley Stadium crowd like it’s a single organism interacting with Mercury.
The other thing that makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” stand out is the astonishing performance by Malek as Mercury. Armed with prosthetics that helped mimic Mercury’s facial features, Malek begins the movie clearly as Rami Malek pretending to be Freddie Mercury. Malek portrays Mercury as troubled, lonely and eccentric, something that vanishes once he is on stage. As the movie progresses and Mercury changes, Malek begins to become Mercury. By the time of the fateful Live Aid concert, viewers will forget that Malek is acting as Mercury. It honestly feels like that’s Mercury prancing around on stage, as Malek absolutely nails Mercury’s shimmying, fist-pumping swaggering onstage habits in a performance that most likely makes Malek a favorite for an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. However you judge “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” elements, Malek alone is reason enough to see this film.
The big point that “Bohemian Rhapsody” makes is just how important Queen is to the development of rock music as we know it. It works as a rousing nostalgia trip for those already familiar with Queen, but serves as an effective introduction for those young viewers who are not familiar with Queen. It will also tell you why you should be familiar with Queen. Ultimately, it will rock you (sorry, couldn’t resist), and at its heart is Freddie Mercury, as Rami Malek ignites the spectacular, sad and sonic saga of the mighty band behind the mightiest of rock anthems.
20th Century Fox’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” opens in cinemas on Oct. 31.