Put Rami Malek high on the list for best film performances of 2018. As Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the British band Queen, the Mr. Robot star performs miracles, catching the look, strut and soul of Mercury, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991. Sadly, the film itself shows signs of a difficult birth. Sacha Baron Cohen was set to play Mercury before he left over creative differences. And director Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects) was fired for not showing up on set (an uncredited Dexter Fletcher replaced him).
So, yeah, Bohemian Rhapsody moves in fits and starts as we follow Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara of Parsi descent, from baggage handler at Heathrow Airport to co-founder of Queen with guitarist/astrophysics scholar Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer/dental student Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). He auditioned for the musicians in a parking lot and, with incautious speed, is soon onstage as their frontman with John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) joining in on bass. Shy offstage and struggling with his love for Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his growing attraction to men, Mercury was secretive and conflicted. But when the singer plays “Love of My Life” on the piano to show his love, the feeling comes through as genuine due to the raw emotion Malek and Boynton pour into their roles. It’s significant that Mercury left Austin the bulk of his fortune in his will. No similar authenticity seeps into the scenes of Mercury’s hedonistic gay lifestyle as a partygiver, participating in orgies that come off here as more mild than wild.
In struggling to make a salable PG-13 movie out of an R-rated rock life, Bohemian Rhapsody leaves you feeling that something essential and elemental is missing. Thankfully, there’s the music that keeps filling the holes in the script by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour, The Theory of Everything) with a virtuoso thrum that is never less than thrilling. And there is Malek, who digs so deep into the role that we can’t believe we’re not watching the real thing, starting from singer and actor sharing an immigrant experience (the actor’s parents are from Egypt, Mercury’s from Zanzibar). Mixing his voice with vocals from Queen and Mercury soundalike Marc Martel, the star is pow personified. On set, the actor sang out the throat-straining vocals in his own voice so that, take after take, the lip-synching would match up perfectly and erase any taint of bad karaoke. He also wore fake teeth to capture the four extra incisors in Mercury’s upper jaw that the singer insisted gave him more power and range. And he nails the frontman’s sexual bravado onstage, with his cropped hair and porn-star mustache, letting loose with “We Are the Champions,” “We Will Rock You,” “Radio Ga Ga” and the title song. The creation of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an unprecedented, six-minute mix of rock and opera that delighted Mercury even as critics decried it, allows for a comic bit with Mike Myers as an EMI record exec who claims no one will ever play it. (Feel free to press play on a YouTube clip of him headbanging to the song in Wayne’s World any time now.)
Many of the major Queen hits are heard in the film’s most daring conceit, a scrupulous recreation of the band’s 20-minute appearance at the 1985 Live Aid concert from London’s Wembley Stadium, which many called the greatest live performance in the history of rock. Hard to argue. Whatever special effects were used to show the band in front of this enormous crowd, the scene captures something crucial about Queen’s connection to an audience as Mercury leads an elaborate call-and-response with his fans. The rousing life that Malek brings to this extraordinary recreation deserves all the cheers it gets. Screw the film’s flaws — you don’t want to miss his performance.