As Pauline Kael remarked when reviewing Sir Carol Reed’s “Oliver,” we tend to undervalue simple craftsmanship in direction, the ability to tell a story with straightforward competence. Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”—yes, he was fired from the project late in the shoot, and Dexter Fletcher came in to finish the film, but Singer retains sole screen credit—is nothing more than a conventional, old fashioned musical biography, but one done up with such verve and technical proficiency that it’s engaging from beginning to end.
The story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, the British rock band in which he was the flamboyant lead singer, is not a tale that calls for much depth in any case. Mercury’s personal life as a closeted gay man from a family of Parsi immigrants is interesting, of course, and Queen was an extraordinarily popular group. But though the singer’s personality and relationships are intriguing and his later years sad (he died of complications of AIDS), he was important more for style than substance, and the same thing could be said of Queen’s music, which despite suggestions to the contrary here, consisted more of thumping crowd-pleasing effect than great innovation or profundity. Singer and screenwriter Andrew McCarten rightfully pitch their tale as one of grandiose showmanship rather than tortured genius, and frankly that seems the absolutely right approach.
They’re fortunate to have found in Rami Malek a young actor who, with a bit of help from some false front teeth to simulate Mercury’s prominent overbite, comes close to replicating the singer’s style, not only in terms of his sinewy moves on stage but his flamboyant gestures off it. Even before he joins guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) after their group Smile’s lead singer bolts for supposedly greener pastures and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) is added to the mix to form Queen, Malek’s Freddie is a strutting force of nature whose family, particularly his father (Ace Bhatti), doesn’t quite know what to make of him. And after the band explodes with their first albums, he becomes more so—leading Queen into new territory, as in the titular song, which breaks radio rules by running to six minutes—and infuriating EMI executive Ray Foster (Mike Myers, almost unrecognizable) who refuses to release it as a single.
Freddie’s also fortunate in his love life, romancing and marrying sweet Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), to whom he promises his undying devotion. Unhappily, his long absences on tour put a strain on the relationship—though not as much as his attraction to men. And that brings the story’s Mephistopheles into the picture in the person of Paul Prenter (the appropriately named Allen Leech), who insinuates his way into Mercury’s circle, engineers the firing of band manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen), and poisons Mercury’s camaraderie with his bandmates, leading to his less successful solo work. Of course, the band re-forms in time for its performance at Live Aid in 1985, by which time Mercury has learned that he has AIDS.
If Malek were the only outstanding element of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the movie would still be worth seeing. But he isn’t. The entire cast are caught up in the spirit of the enterprise; Lee, Hardy and Mazzello do gleeful, often very funny turns as Queen’s other players, and Boynton is sweet as Mercury’s girlfriend-wife. Leech is perhaps a mite too sinister as Prenter, but Myers provides a hilarious cameo and Tom Hollander, as Queen’s unflappable, decent final manager Jim Beach, is, as always, a delight. Aaron McCusker helps to end the film on a relatively upbeat note as Jim Hutton, Mercury’s significant other in his latter days, who provides support during his illness.
But while one has to make allowance for Fletcher’s contribution, and to that of editor John Ottman (who’s worked closely with Singer in the past but might not have enjoyed as much guidance from him this time around), one has to give primary credit to Singer, who marshals his forces with the skill he’s shown throughout his career, in smaller and larger projects. The performance sequences—especially the epic Live Aid finale, but earlier ones as one—as well as the scenes of the band creating and recording their songs, are especially well done, but even the more intimate moments (if you can call some of the parties intimate) are equally effective. Working with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, production designer Aaron Haye and costumer Julian Day, Singer has fashioned a visual feast, garish but not overwhelmingly so. Even the occasional shots of Mercury’s cats are charming rather than annoying.
One can certainly imagine a film about Freddie Mercury and Queen that would be edgier and grittier than “Bohemian Rhapsody” (had Peter Morgan, who began writing the screenplay, continued in that capacity, it might have emerged rather differently). Though unquestionably retro in its approach, however, the movie works as a crowd-pleasing tribute to Mercury and Queen; and it’s so enjoyable on that level that it would be churlish to complain.