I feel like Bohemian Rhapsody is one of those films that either really appealed to you or really didn’t register at all. I was born in 1970, so I grew up during a time when Queen’s music was played a fair bit on the radio. But I was only a casual fan, and outside of their Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits II albums, my music collection is Queen-free. I was curious to see the film, though, and learn more about the band, especially since I enjoyed Rami Malek’s performance in the recent Papillion remake.
I say this because I went into the movie knowing practically nothing about Queen outside of its hits, and Freddie Mercury’s stage presence, mustache, and wife-beater T-shirts. So my experience and impression of this movie will probably be different from those of someone who was a real fan of the band and familiar with its history. Bohemian Rhapsody follows Queen’s formation and meteoric rise to success, specifically focusing on the life of flamboyant front man Freddie Mercury, culminating in a terrific recreation of the band’s epic Live Aid performance in 1985 and Mercury’s admission to the band that he had contracted AIDS.
A movie focusing on actual people—especially someone with such a bigger-than-life personality as Mercury—rises or falls on the quality and believability of the actors portraying them, and I found Malek’s portrayal of Mercury to be spectacular, capturing his nuances and stage mannerisms as I remember them. This is helped quite a bit by some serious prosthetics to recreate Mercury’s signature overbite (caused by having four additional incisors, according to the film, which may or may not have contributed to his extended vocal range). In some of the early scenes I felt I could see the makeup, but that could have been more a factor of the 4K transfer being a tad too revealing. Is Malek a caricature of the actual Mercury? Maybe, but to my eyes the performance worked perfectly. Also, Gwilym Lee—or rather Gwilym Lee’s impressive wigs—transformed him into a lookalike of guitarist Brian May. (The film also features an almost unrecognizable Mike Myers as EMI executive Ray Foster.)
The 2 hour and 14 minute run time zips by, moving from one milestone in the band’s career to the next. This is partly due to its hyper-compressed timelines, taking events that happened over years in some cases and boiling them down to a single scene. I’m not saying Bohemian plays fast and loose with the truth exactly, but it left me feeling like you weren’t getting the whole story and were watching a Cliff Notes version of actual events.
For example, the opening would have you believe Freddie just happened upon a band who’s lead singer suddenly quit and, “Guess what guys? I happen to write songs and sing a bit.” In actuality, Mercury had been writing songs and playing music for years, had been singing for a couple of other bands, and was friends with the band that would eventually become Queen. It also suggests “We Will Rock You” was just thrown together by May when Mercury was a few minutes late for a band meeting. And, contrary to the ending, Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until two years after the famous Live Aid concert.
Whether it was naivety, ignorance, or the culture of the times, Mercury being gay wasn’t part of his narrative that I remember while growing up. (To be fair, I also remember thinking The Village People were just a cool bunch of guys who liked dressing up in wacky costumes, embodying different characters. Yeah, it was a different time and news travelled a lot slower back in the ‘70s . . . and I was like 10.) The film certainly addresses Freddie’s sexuality, but does so staying outside the bedroom. And like many of the other time-compressed moments, he seemingly goes from a happy, committed, hetero relationship to, “OK, I’m gay now,” following one lingering glance from a trucker outside a men’s room.
Mercury seemed to be constantly running away from things—his Zanzibar birthplace, his Parsi background, his family, his name (Farrokh Bulsara), his girlfriend, and ultimately his band—and rushing towards a future and lifestyle that ultimately killed him. I definitely came away from the movie with a far greater appreciation of the talent of both Queen and Mercury. The film’s portrayal of the recording sessions for their first album and “Bohemian Rhapsody” showed an experimentation and creativity that reminded me of Brian Wilson’s efforts with Pet Sounds or The Beatles and George Martin on Sgt. Pepper’s. I finished the film wanting to go to Tidal to experience their catalogue.
For a movie focusing on a rock band, it’s crucial the music sound great, and it truly looked like the songs were being played and sung by the actors. I felt Rhapsody scored a definite A here, and apparently they blended Malik’s singing in with Mercury’s (and others) vocals. The live shows sound especially good, with big kick-drum beats that send bass waves into your chest, and the finale at Live Aid is just terrific.
One major disappointment is that the Kaleidescape digital download doesn’t include the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, instead having a 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. For a movie where music plays such a starring role, I’d love to hear how this sounded in a full Atmos mix. Of course, the blame here lies with 20th Century Fox, which for some reason refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the immersive audio mix for any of its films. Here’s hoping that gets resolved at some point in the near future, at which point anyone who has already purchased the film would be able to re-download it with the new audio track at no charge.
For me, Bohemian Rhapsody does a great job of packing nearly 20 years of time into a cohesive story, and gets enough of the big stuff right that you can overlook the little factual errors.
It is available now for digital download, a full three-weeks before it will be released on physical media.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.