Rami Malek's bravura performance as Freddie Mercury just won him an Oscar.
Bohemian Rhapsody, which won four Academy Awards awards Sunday night, chronicles the rise of the band Queen, and appropriately focuses on lead singer Freddie Mercury. But this isn't a cradle-to-grave biography. It covers 15 years of Queen's rise and comeback and it's as much a concert as it is a biopic -- especially while showcasing the band's performance at Live Aid, a global charity concert in 1985 that raised money to fight hunger in Ethiopia.
Even before Bohemian Rhapsody begins, the 20th Century Fox logo appears on screen and the familiar trumpet fanfare morphs into an electric guitar with Queen-like flourishes. It's kind of like the logo is telling you to get ready to rock, there will be head-banging. When is the last time a non-comic-book-movie logo got cheers before a film?
At the screening I attended at San Francisco's famed Castro Theater, people were mouthing lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody -- like you do -- and clapping their hands along to "Radio GaGa." There are so many Queen songs featured in the film it's worth seeing it just to hear the music over theater speakers. I can't remember another music biopic with as much music as this.
The other reason to see Bohemian Rhapsody is Rami Malek's bravura performance as Freddie Mercury, which won him a Golden Globe and Academy Award. It's hard to imagine anyone being able to play the truly unique Mercury, with his high cheekbones, endless jawline and, of course, those teeth.
Looking like Mercury is one thing, but being able to perform like him is quite another. Enter Malek, who plays Elliot Alderson on Mr. Robot. He doesn't look exactly like Mercury, but embodies him head to toe. His performance carries the film, and is filled with heart even in some of Mercury's darker moments.
On stage, Malek is outlandish, flirty and mesmerizing as he swaggers and preens with the real Mercury's confidence. His angular stance and press of vocals beam out of his spandex-covered frame like a bright light to the heavens. And that's just as Mercury on stage.
Malek is adept at portraying both the rock star and the person. In the scenes between Mercury and Mary Austin, his closest friend and partner (played by Lucy Boynton), you see a vulnerable side to Mercury, driven by a search for identity as much as ambition. (Hey, iconic rock stars are just like us.)
Without Mary, as the film shows, Mercury might not have fully explored his talent or come to terms with his sexuality. Boynton brings a contemporary perspective to Mary that allows her to be a supportive muse, partner and friend who has enough emotional strength to show Mercury who he really is, even as he breaks her heart with his philandering.
But the other part of Freddie Mercury is as lead singer of Queen. Legendary guitarist Brian May is wonderfully played by Gwilym Lee under a mop of curls, Ben Hardy plays drummer Roger Taylor and Joe Mazzello plays bass guitarist John Deacon.
Some of my favorite scenes are when the four of them are recording a song. You see as much of the foursome's creativity as you do their bickering. One of the better sequences is the band recording "Bohemian Rhapsody" in a studio on a farm. There's a moment when Mercury writes the lyrics that's part act of creation and part divine inspiration. It's just him alone at a piano in a farmhouse with his raw emotions and natural talent on full display.
The story has obvious parallels to other music biopics, maybe because so many famous musicians' lives follow the same path: start out as a nobody; find love and success; struggle with stardom, sexual adventures, drugs; lose yourself to fame; grow apart from those close to you; and make a comeback. Also, as is the case here, there's the tragic ending.
Mercury died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991. It was a "where were you when" moment only heightened by the fact that at that time, awareness and understanding of HIV/AIDS was still in its infancy. Just the day before his death, the very private performer shared publicly that he had the disease.
The sense of Mercury's tragic end creeps up on you from the first frame of the film, a silent close-up on his eyes. It's not clear what the context is here, but there's enough ambiguity that makes you fear the worst. The knowledge of Mercury's illness and death is a like another character in the film whose presence is barely seen but often left me feeling dread is around the corner.
But as that short silent beginning ends, "Somebody to Love" kicks in and we glimpse Mercury walking past all his cats feasting from fancy bowls to leave his mansion for that famous Live Aid concert. Mercury is in his full-on Castro clone look with short, slicked hair and large, bushy mustache.
Despite languishing in development limbo for years, with various attached stars and directors (and not without controversy), the film that came out of such a messy creative process is phenomenal. It doesn't deserve to be overshadowed by off screen in-fighting, and director Dexter Fletcher (credited as executive producer) deserves praise for his work in the final weeks of filming.
The film is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, a frequent collaborator with Bryan Singer, credited as the film's director. Sigel captures the band performing as authentically as he does the tiny mundane moments between shows. I love the way he frames Malek on and off.
As for the wardrobe, throughout the film I heard various audience members/numerous viewers say, "Oh, I want that shirt" or "I need those shoes." Malek's clothes as Mercury are necessarily, gloriously over the top. The film's a master class in rock star costume design.
Mike Myers is nearly unrecognizable as EMI executive Ray Foster. His presence in the film is wonderfully cheeky especially since Wayne's World was one of the reasons Bohemian Rhapsody had a resurgence.
Bohemian Rhapsody, much like the 2015 biopic Straight Outta Compton did for NWA, will introduce Queen to a new audience while easily elevating the band's rock god status even higher. Even under all that hype, the film is about four outsiders who made a bunch of fantastic music.
As Mercury says: "We're four misfits who don't belong together playing for the other misfits."
First published, Nov. 3, 2018.
Update, Feb. 25 at 10:05 a.m.: Adds the film's four Oscar wins.
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