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Movie review: Bohemian Rhapsody will not rock you

Rami Malek keeps the mercury from dipping in disjointed biopic on the Queen frontman

Rami Malek (centre) as Freddie Mercury in a still from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Rami Malek (centre) as Freddie Mercury in a still from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

When the lyrics popped up karaoke-style in Mama Mia it added to the enjoyment. After all that was a breezy sing-along musical designed around Abba’s greatest hits. But the karaoke idea does not work in a tragic biopic, even if it sets out to celebrate the life and music of the rock star Freddie Mercury.

The movie, on the band Queen and its flamboyant lead singer, begins in 1970 with Farrokh Bulsara as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport who scribbles songs in his downtime. Rather quickly and easily, he bags a spot singing with Brian May and Roger Taylor’s band Smile. When racist taunts get too much, he changes his name to Freddie Mercury, much to the dismay of his father.

Directors Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher spend two hours 15 minutes touching on the key milestones in Mercury’s life, occasionally pausing to pay homage to the band’s greatest hits—Killer Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You and I Want to Break Free—or making a pit stop at a turning point event, like the genesis of the album A Night at the Opera.

The cinematic tribute ends with the 1985 Live Aid concert, which is also the piece de resistance of this otherwise disjointed and hollow musical drama.

Rami Malek pops in a toothy prosthetic and outlandish costumes to transform into the Queen frontman. Freddie Mercury was admired for his passion for music and his talent. He was both fearless and foolish—fearless with this music and foolish in his personal life choices, diving into hedonism and promiscuity till it made him unwell.

 Through his complicated relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) we get a window into Freddie at his most tender, intimate and vulnerable. It makes the song Love of My Life, which he wrote for Austin, all the more meaningful. Else what you see is a simplified understanding of the rock star’s loneliness, especially as a gay Indian man in 1970-80s England whose constant companions were his pet cats. When Freddie confesses his sexual leanings to Mary she says, “Your life is going to be very difficult." It’s one a moving moment because she was proven right.

Actor Gwilym Lee has an uncanny resemblance to guitarist Brian May while Joe Mazzello plays bassist John Deacon and Ben Hardy steps into Roger Taylor’s shoes. Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander and Allen Leech also star as managers and music executives. Mike Myers is unrecognisable in his cameo as record executive Ray Foster.

Describing the band to manager John Reid (Gillen), Freddie says, “Now we’re four misfits who don’t belong together, we’re playing for the other misfits. They’re the outcasts, right at the back of the room. We’re pretty sure they don’t belong either. We belong to them."

This is why Queen remains iconic and, even though the movie may not do either the band or the singer justice, you will be singing Bohemian Rhapsody all the way home.

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