Rami Malek, star of television’s Mr. Robot and the (mostly) overlooked Indie gem, BUSTER’S MAL HEART, may just have found the vehicle to assure him of the A-list stardom he so richly deserves in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Like the character Malek essays, Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, the film is flawed but Malek, through the sheer force of his talent in a middling script, makes it more than worth seeing thereby saving it, and us, from the dreck of a tragically standard rock-star bio-pic that is intermittently brilliant.
Born as Farrokh Bulsara, a Parsee in Tanzania, Mercury re-invented himself from Heathrow baggage-handler into an artist with an unerring instinct for whipping an audience into a frenzy, and just as unerring an instinct for self-destructive behavior. The rise to fame is told in flashback, of course, after the establishing shots of Mercury heading off to give the performance of a lifetime at Live Aid. Cut to Mercury as baggage handler at Heathrow, correcting people who call him a Paki, scribbling poetry on scraps of paper, and being rebuffed by his future bandmates because if his particular dentition. But we all know he is destined for greater things, and thus ensues in rapid succession how he met the band that would become Queen; how his big dreams pushed them to success in spite of themselves; the first meeting with the manager (a colorless Aiden Gillen) who would change their lives; the first tour; the recording of the eponymous song (a chicken was, apparently, involved), etc, etc, etc ad nauseum. By the time we get to the part where Mercury is irritating interchangeable (and oddly unaging) fellow band mates Brian May (Gwilyn Lee), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), an insidious sense of staleness has set in.
Yes, we’ve seen this before in any random episode of MTV’s Behind the Music.
Fortunately for all involved, Malek, working with a script that is more a series of standard tropes than compelling story, presents the right mix of outrageous ego, savage wit, languid ennui, and vulnerable insecurity that makes him empathetic even when Mercury is being a jerk. Talking back to his father (Ace Bhatt), in the dreadfully predictable family squabble scene before fame arrives, he is both defiant about his choices and pained that Daddy doesn’t understand him. The opposite of dreadful, though, is when he first sees Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman who would become the love of his life even after he accepted being gay. That he is hopelessly smitten with what he sees is written all over his face with an expression that tells us he is seeing her in slow-mo as the angels sing. There is unexpectedly innocent charm as he turns away, abashed and shy, when she notices him looking. And even more of the same when he blurts out the first thing he can think of, and it’s not brilliant.
This is the true power of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. When it becomes Mercury’s first-person experience it is extraordinary. For all of Malek’s physicality as he struts and preens, it is his face as Mercury drifts, red-lit and montage-style, through Mercury’s sex-and-drug excesses after he embraces his sexuality. Is it a cost-cutting move? Does it assure the film its PG-13 rating by giving us glimpses of what is causing Malek’s face to become a study in eager, rapacious innocence? It doesn’t matter. As wonder, bemusement, joy, and lust flit across his face, we know all that we need to know about what is happening to Mercury at the moment, and to foreshadow what is to come. Later montages of a press conference gone very, very wrong, and, later, when Mercury receives his AIDS diagnosis, are even stronger. Suddenly, the editing takes on an urgency, the visuals take on profound impact, and the simple acknowledgment of a fellow patient of the place Mercury’s music has in his life, is a heartbreaking comment on the necessity of art.
When it is expositional, alas, it is banal, with an exposition that is both amateurish and incomplete. We learn about the four extra incisors that create that ci-mentioned unique dentation, but not that he was the one who created Queen’s iconic logo. The paternal disapproval, which fueled Mercury’s obsession with finding what Armistead Maupin would later term a logical family to take the place of his biological one, is undercut as a motive by the exceptionally warm relationship he shares with his mother (Meneka Das) and sister (Priya Blackburn).
Malek goes through the paces, recreating Mercury’s energy on stage, the swagger as the microphone stand becomes his bitch, and the stage, no matter how large, still not being quite big enough to contain him. When he delivers a bon mot, he’s devastating. When he’s forced to speak hopelessly cliché dramatic lines designed to reveal the inner struggle of the man who is living his dream, the pain of watching such talent wrestle with them takes on an unintended tragedy. That a pivotal confrontation takes place in the pouring rain only serves to highlight how hackneyed BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is willing to be.
In supporting roles, Tom Hollander shines in a study in perfect equanimity as the band’s lawyer who surveys the human comedy before him and chooses to be amused rather than aghast, while a cameo by an unrecognizable Mike Meyers as the music executive who may have worked with Hendrix, but has no clue what Queen is up to, makes a fine commentary on art’s gatekeepers.
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY may stumble as much as it rocks, but if it makes Rami Malek’s career, it will have done its job.