Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
There have been some smaller entries in recent years, but it has been a while since the heyday of the big budget music biopic that hit its peak in 2004-2005 with movies like Ray and Walk the Line. It returned to a certain extent with 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, but looks to make a full comeback over the next year, beginning with November’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Rhapsody documents the rise of the band Queen, particularly their flamboyant frontman Freddie Mercury.
The movie opens by teasing a recreation of Queen’s famous 1985 performance at the Live-Aid music festival before returning us back to the band’s college days. Having been playing local bars and dorm parties, drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May of the band named Smile suddenly find themselves in need of a new lead singer. Enter young fan Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara, whose impromptu performance wins them over. They also add a new bass player in John Deacon and gather together enough money for a recording session and suddenly the band that we know as Queen is off and running.
The movie focuses primarily on Mercury, which is understandable given that he is the most interesting personality, but it would have been nice to have learned more about the other members of the band as well. They are rarely on screen without Mercury and when they are, it is usually because they are sitting around waiting for the ever tardy Freddie to arrive. Even when the band asks that Freddie give them a moment so they can discuss whether or not to welcome him back into the band after a parting of ways, the camera stays with Freddie and we are given no glimpse as to how the band arrived at their decision. This is further disappointing because it means less time with the three actors who deliver some compelling supporting performances in Joseph Mazzello (Deacon), Gwilym Lee (May), and Ben Hardy (Taylor).
But Freddie is the star of the show and deservedly so. Mercury was an incredible personality both on and off the stage, and that comes across in the film. The movie follows him from his early courtship of his wife Mary Austin through the rise of Queen and his fall into a dark place when he took some bad advice from an exploitative manager, before finally introducing him to his partner Jim Hutton, who stabilized his life, and whom he lived with until his death from AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia. It was a fascinating life, but the movie seems content to stay on the surface and never really digs deep into what made Mercury such an interesting persona. It doesn’t take any risks and follows the standard template for a musical biopic, which is somewhat ironic since it is telling the story of a persona and a band that were anything but standard.
Wisely, the movie chooses to end on a high note by delivering the promise of its opening and recreating the Live Aid set considered by many to be one of the greatest rock performances in music history. The concert scene is far and away the highlight of the film. Recreated almost perfectly—a couple of songs were cut for time—it is one of the most energizing concerts ever recreated for the cinema. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing because it sends the movie out on a high note, but it is a bad thing because it is simply a recreation of a real event that can easily be revisited in its entirety on YouTube.
The challenge of filling the shoes of the eccentric Mercury falls to Rami Malek, by far his biggest cinematic role to date. The actor absolutely nails the musical performances, especially the concert scene at the end. He so perfectly channels the energetic spirit of Mercury as he struts across the stage and chants back and forth with the crowd that it is easy to forget that we are not watching the actual Mercury on stage. If this movie were the concert scenes alone, Malek would be a front-runner for this year’s best actor Oscar, but unfortunately he is not able to disappear into the character of Mercury as easily when it comes to the non-musical scenes. In these scenes it felt more like he was acting the part than simply inhabiting the character.
Bohemian Rhapsody may not break new ground when it comes to music biopics, but it is an entertaining journey from start to finish, and simply being able to hear all those great songs on the theater speakers is alone worth the price of admission.
Bohemian Rhapsody opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.