Rami Malek is the champion of greatest hits film ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Nov 4, 2018, 4:32 AM | Updated: 6:48 pm

Gwilym Lee as Brian May, left, Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury and Joe Mazzello as John Deacon in a s...

Gwilym Lee as Brian May, left, Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury and Joe Mazzello as John Deacon in a scene from the film "Bohemian Rhapsody." (Alex Bailey, Twentieth Century Fox)

(Alex Bailey, Twentieth Century Fox)

“BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY” — 3 stars — Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello; PG-13 (thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language); in general release

Queen was a classic rock band known for epic, larger-than-life stadium anthems, and for better and worse, Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” feels like a big-screen arena-shaking rock number.

Singer’s effort veers between two jobs. Structurally, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the story of Queen, but more specifically, it’s also the story of Freddie Mercury, Queen’s charismatic lead singer. It may seem like those tasks are one and the same, but they aren’t.

After a quick prologue hints of the grandiose spectacle to come, the story opens in 1970 at London’s Heathrow Airport, where a young Mercury (Rami Malek) works as a baggage handler. In his free time, he haunts a neighborhood club and it’s here he meets a local college band called Smile.

One night, Mercury finally gets the nerve to approach the band, just in time to find out their lead singer has moved on to better things. Smile’s remaining members — a dental student drummer named Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and an aspiring astrophysicist lead guitarist named Brian May (Gwilym Lee) — initially scoff at Mercury’s big-toothed offer to take over as their frontman. But they soon learn Mercury’s bravado is equaled by his talent, and the rags-to-riches story is off and running.

The first half of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is fun and fast-paced, and we watch the band members shed old names in favor of new monikers (Mercury is a stage name) and gradually establish themselves as one of the up-and-coming bands of the mid-1970s. Along the way, Mercury meets a humble retail employee named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who becomes his muse for both fashion and music, eventually inspiring Queen’s hit “Love of My Life.”

That track is just one example of Singer using Queen’s big hits as narrative road markers. Over the film’s 134-minute run time, we also get behind-the-scenes stories for radio staples like “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You” and, of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which acts as the key turning point in the band’s career. (Fans in the know will appreciate Mike Myers’ performance as EMI executive Ray Foster through this stretch, since Myers’ use of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1992’s “Wayne’s World” helped return the band to the public eye in the early 1990s.)

But while the biopic often feels like a visual run through Queen’s greatest hits, the film also tries to do for Mercury what 2004’s “Ray” did for Ray Charles and what 2005’s “Walk the Line” did for Johnny Cash. “Bohemian Rhapsody” consistently feels a step behind those superior biopics — perhaps because their subjects were solo artists? — but as the story moves forward, we see Mercury’s struggles with his sexuality move from a background concern to an issue that threatens the continuity of the band.

Mercury’s homosexuality is a major focus of the film’s second half, as the lead singer unsuccessfully tries to balance his rock ‘n’ roll excesses against his sincere desire to maintain a semblance of a relationship with Austin. The film’s PG-13 rating is a bit of a surprise, especially in the context of the traditional hedonistic rocker culture, but in terms of sexual content, both gay and straight, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is limited to implied encounters and a few scenes of kissing.

While Mercury’s identity as a closeted gay frontman is unique among classic rock acts, it’s still interesting to note the familiar trajectory of the band itself, starting from humble beginnings and rocketing to superstardom, only to fall on hard times once the indulgences of fame and fortune threaten to ruin everything.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t quite feel like a VH1 “Behind the Music” special brought to the big screen, but its hasty style may leave some diehard fans wishing for more depth — either for Mercury’s personal story or for the band itself (while Mercury is clearly the focus, knowing May has a background in astrophysics suggests there’s a lot more potential to be mined all around).

The final product may shortchange both sides of its equation, but fans will probably still enjoy what Singer put on the screen. As a musical biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is ultimately more interested in the greatest hits than mining deep cuts.

Rating explained: “Bohemian Rhapsody” consistently deals with sexual themes, though its on-screen content is more implied, limited mostly to kissing. The PG-13 rating is also drawn from profanity and vulgar dialogue; running time: 134 minutes.

Joshua Terry is an award-winning writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. He has written weekly film reviews for the Deseret News since 2013.

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Rami Malek is the champion of greatest hits film ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’