By the time the credits roll on Bohemian Rhapsody, there is at least one message it's gotten across loud and clear: Queen’s music is still bloody fantastic. This isn’t just highlighted in the final moments of the film, with Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury spellbinding his way through ‘Radio Gaga’ to an enraptured Wembley Stadium. It’s in the sheer amount of everything else: the montages of their world tours, the ‘making of’ certain classics, the deliverance of favourites like ‘Love Of My Life’ to South American crowds singing in rousing unison. When the band goes to make their magnum opuses in ‘We Will Rock You’ and the film’s namesake, it’s not just a presentation of their legendary talent. It’s inferred that you’re to indulge in the creative brilliance of it all, to sing and clap along. And metaphorically, if the operatic joy of the group’s discography resonates with you, you very likely will.
The trouble is, you don’t really need to watch a film to appreciate Queen. You can just play the music instead. Or just read up on everything that’s been said about the band - there’s plenty out there, online or not. All of the details surrounding Mercury at his zenith - his talent, hedonistic lifestyle and private struggle with AIDS - have been revisited ad nauseum over the years. Therefore, Bohemian Rhapsody would have to be pretty special to offer something new. And it isn’t. Instead, it’s a fairly hokey biopic - one that does, admittedly, offer plenty of heartfelt tribute for the singer and approaches his personal life with genuine empathy. As an audio-visual experience, it's frequently mesmerising. But beneath the wow factor, it’s just another rehash of the same key events in the band’s legacy. And with the details it does use, it makes a bit of a ham-fist trying to lay it all straight - or even, in order.
It starts decently enough. From the very start, we’re introduced to a young Farrokh Bulsara, the son of a Zanzibari migrant family, in his pre-Mercury days working the baggage handling at Heathrow Airport. In parallel, the pre-Queen trio of Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazello) are busy rocking the UK college circuit with their then-band, Smile. Farrokh, receiving nothing but disdain and racial abuse from his Heathrow team, dreams of escaping the drudgery of his job and into music. Smile, on the other hand, would love to have a lead singer who doesn’t end up ditching them for ‘better things’. Luckily, the former is a fan of the latter. Farrokh gets to meet his future band-mates after one of their gigs, and - voila! - Freddie Mercury and Queen are born. They go on the road in a crappy van, rocking every venue they hit up. They record Seven Seas of Rhye and it’s actually quite good. They have the livewire of a lead singer they’ve always lacked: a musical prodigy who can teasingly play the early notes to the titular song while lying down, one arm outstretched to a piano above him, long before he even writes it. They’re talented! They’re precocious! They rock! And if this film could borrow any more music movie tropes, it could almost be considered insipid. At least before you realize that most of these tropes came by way of bands like Queen anyway.
And then there is Mercury himself. ‘Talented’ and ‘precocious’ don’t even begin to describe his enduring phenomenon. Without him, we wouldn’t have this film. We probably wouldn’t even have had Queen. And no tribute to the band can succeed without at least trying to lay his life bare - his rise from spontaneous rockstar wannabe, the dealings with his emergent sexuality and his feelings of isolation despite his party life. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly not one to shirk this duty, but it takes a different tack from most of the documentaries and biographies before it, by instead, placing a focus on his long-term close friend, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Their relationship is relayed in great detail throughout the film, through their initial time as lovers to platonic friends after his eventual coming-out to her (a pivotal scene given the emotion it’s due). True to real life, she’s constantly his rock in a hard place. And even while Mercury takes on other lovers (including Jim Hutton, portrayed by Aaron McClusker), she’s often the filter that brings out the humanity behind his bombastic public persona. Their scenes together demand sensitivity and they get it, giving the film some necessary introspection to balance out all the rockstar frivolity.
On the whole, Rami Malek’s portrayal of Mercury is likely to have some detractors. Filling the role was always going to be a massive ask for anyone, especially if even Sacha Baron Cohen had to walk out on the film. But while Malek doesn’t quite have the lead singer’s mannerisms down perfectly, he certainly does inject plenty of charisma and effort into emulating his magnetic personality. Crucially, he’s also able to form a convincing chemistry with his on-screen bandmates. There’s not a single bad performance from anyone here. Ben Hardy can actually nail Roger Taylor’s falsetto. Joe Mazello’s dry, sarcastic John Deacon is a good laugh. As for Gwilym Lee’s Brian May, the only way you could get a closer rendition of Queen’s legendary guitarist is if you put him in the movie himself. There’s even room for solid performances from Aidan Gillen and Allen Leech, plus a great cameo from Mike Myers - here as a disgruntled EMI record exec. Doubts may have lingered about the casting of certain figures, but the cast themselves have done more than enough to banish them. Most importantly, Malek’s Freddie is still electric enough to be an arresting central figure, and his story is indeed as captivating - and emotional - as he can possibly make it.
Unfortunately, it’s also a story about as close to the real thing as night is to day. Where Bohemian Rhapsody’s biggest problems lie are with its muddling with the facts to provide its entertainment, to the point that it even uses them as suggestion rather than guideline. It isn’t true that Mercury had his first music performance with Smile; he was already performing with other bands. It’s also a falsehood that Brian May, in a sudden moment of genius improv, got all the band and their girlfriends together up on a studio stage to do the boom-boom clap for We Will Rock You, like he does here. The film also makes a huge deal out of Mercury’s breakaway to do a solo album - engineered on-screen by his personal assistant, Paul Prenter (Leech), who manipulates him away from band manager John Reid (Gillan) and the band themselves. The whole thing’s treated like the breakup of Queen, and while there was friction, it wasn't cataclysmic. In reality, each member was free to pursue their own solo projects whenever they wanted. Time and time again, Bohemian Rhapsody makes half-truths out of what really happened for the sake of some popcorn drama. By the time Mary Austin is on hand to save Mercury from his destructive partying, the film has long gone from biography to loose pastiche. She literally gatecrashes a party to tell him about the Live Aid concert - to get the band back together, of all things. It's great for an emotional climax, but it’s also histrionic Hollywood mush. And the band, for all the interesting stories they actually did have, deserve better.
But through it all, there is still the music, and Bohemian Rhapsody absolutely cherishes it. The song itself is given lavish tribute - there’s a wonderful back-and-forth sequence of the band trying to bring all of its intricacies together, concluding in an amusing flashpoint with Myers’ hapless record exec when they demand it be released as a single. It’s not the truth of it, but it’s certainly riveting. And perhaps that’s why this movie has done so well in the box-office, despite critical lukewarmity. In an age where feeling is valued over fact, films that can deliver on emotion and brevity are going to be the ones that translate to big money success. And Bohemian Rhapsody undeniably provides both. What it doesn’t provide is any real detail about Queen or Freddie Mercury that fans won’t already know. Ultimately, whether or not you’ll enjoy this earnest muddle of a biopic is on if you want an actual biography, or just a celebration of the band’s impeccable work.