Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury in this musical biopic which covers for a lot of its sins by using the music of freakin’ Queen.
It’s the early 70s and Farrokh Bulsara, AKA the future Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), goes out to see a band called Smile, whose lead singer quits that night. Mercury takes his place in the band, joining Guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), who are soon joined by Bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello). At the same time, Mercury begins dating Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Based on Mercury’s suggestion, they change the band name to Queen and record a debut album which garners attention, and their single “Killer Queen” gets them an appearance on Top of the Pops. The band goes on a tour of the USA where Freddie starts to begin sexual relations with men.
Queen records their hit album “A Night at the Opera” including the track “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which the record label insists can’t be played on the radio. Eventually, Freddie gets it on the air and it becomes a smash hit. He also begins an affair with Paul (Allen Leech), the band’s manager and Mary breaks up with him over it, though they remain in contact and on friendly terms.
Freddie starts to descend into depression and hedonism, though he meets a very attractive waiter named Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who tells Freddie to call him when he learns to like himself. During a press conference for one of the albums, “Hot Space,” the press keeps asking Freddie about his sexuality, which makes him uncomfortable. Paul convinces one of the band managers, John Reid (Aidan Gillen), to offer Mercury a solo career, but Mercury responds by firing Reid. However, he does end up working on a solo album, “Mr. Bad Guy,” while Paul tries to isolate him from the world. Mary tells Freddie that he should rejoin the band to do Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. At the same time, Freddie is diagnosed with AIDS, leading him to decide to help people through Live Aid, and the band is given a last-minute spot. He reveals to the band that he has AIDS and they are supportive.
On the day of Live Aid, he comes out to his family with Jim, tells Mary she is the love of his life, and tries to reconcile with his father. The band performs at Live Aid, rocking the entire world for 21 minutes, resulting in a massive number of donations. Mercury died at age 45.
Let’s get a few things out of the way: A lot of the events in the end of Freddie Mercury’s life were re-arranged so that the big climax of the film was the performance at Wembley. He didn’t likely know that he had AIDS at that point and he definitely hadn’t told the band about it. The band wasn’t broken up, they’d been touring for at least a year before this. Also, while Queen’s performance at Wembley is listed as one of, if not THE, greatest live shows in history, Queen was not the only major name at Live Aid. In fact, they took the stage after Sting, Phil Collins, U2, and Dire Straits and right before David Bowie, the Who, and Elton John. While they rocked the hell out of the stadium, they definitely weren’t the only stars. It’s a biopic, so I have to give them a little leeway, but I still thought that some of this stuff might have been going a bit far.
This movie is interesting to me because when I first saw it I was blown away by it. Then I rewatched it to do this review, and I was shocked at how little it was impressing me. That’s when it hit me: It was the soundtrack. When I was in the theater, with the soundtrack, which, naturally, is Queen’s greatest hits, everything was so pleasant and coated in a layer of awesome nostalgia that it was inherently more fun. Without the great speaker setup the effect was muted. I watched it again with the sound down to try and focus just on the dialogue and the effect was basically broken. And then, in the cold light of day, it hit me: This is an okay movie with one amazing performance and a fantastic soundtrack, though it’s not the first movie to use Queen well…
The dialogue in this movie is pretty bad, the structure consists of a lot of hurrying to try and capture the entire ~20 year career of Queen in one film, and the climax, while amazing, is rushed and disorganized, with a lot of “emotional” moments feeling unearned. That said, Rami Malek is a f*cking fantastic Freddie Mercury in this and since he’s the focus of the film, that means a lot. Every motion, every look, every note he sings, all of it convey a complex level of emotional depth. You see him as the boy who is worried about what his family thinks, the rocker who just wants to party, the artist who just wants the beautiful music inside of him to get out, the performer who wants to see everyone under his sway, and the broken man who just wants to avoid the loneliness within him. Often, you get scenes in which you can see all of them at once, which is a sign that you’ve truly captured a character. Malek nailed this hard.
The rest of the movie is sadly fairly mediocre, but it feels amazing because it has a soundtrack that consists of the best songs by Queen. That’s not really a small thing, to be sure, since music can be a powerful force on a scene, but the thing is that this movie is using it to do most of the heavy emotional lifting and to get people in a mindset more accepting of the mediocrity of the dialogue. That’s not great filmmaking, that’s just making a movie about great music with a great focal performance that keeps you from being able to realize it immediately.
Overall, I do still think this movie is worth seeing, if only for Rami Malek’s performance, but ultimately it just had so much potential that it failed to take advantage of.
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