Movie Review: Malek shines as Freddie Mercury in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ biopic

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Bohemian Rhapsody' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Few singers could belt to the rafters like Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.

His four-octave range is not only the greatest voice in rock history, it was my own formative introduction to music as Queen’s “Greatest Hits” was the very first cassette tape I ever owned.

This weekend, Mercury’s meteoric rise and tragic death is explored in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a rollicking music biopic that bounces from song to song with all the subtlety of a TV movie, but is utterly irresistible for its infectious nostalgia and Rami Malek’s stunning performance.

The story follows Farrokh Bulsara (Malek), who changes his name to Freddie Mercury upon meeting Queen bandmates Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) in London. Together, they record a string of smash hits, argue and split as Mercury excessively parties then reunites the band to rock Live Aid before succumbing to AIDS at the young age of 45.

Malek’s talent is no secret after his Emmy win for “Mr. Robot” (2015), but he’s a revelation on the silver screen. Despite distracting prosthetic teeth (“extra teeth equals extra range”), Malek disappears into the role, combining his own voice with Mercury’s unrivaled vocals and those of master Queen impersonator Marc Martel. Malek is even self-deprecating about his lip-syncing duties, as a co-star sarcastically says, “At least people won’t be staring at your mouth.”

The supporting casting is spot-on with Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello boasting an uncanny resemblance to Queen members Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon (as you’ll see in side-by-side comparisons in the end credits). Their arguments over song lyrics often result in laugh-out-loud exchanges with each member trying to one-up the others.

Lucy Boynton (“Sing Street”) pulls off the heaviest lift as Mercury’s fiancee Mary Austin, having his back long before he’s famous, gradually suspecting he’s gay and ultimately maintaining a lifelong bond that transcends sexuality to give new meaning to the song “Love of My Life.”

While Boynton carries the personal melodrama, the professional conflict stems from a rivalry between band managers John Reid (Aidan Gillen) and Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Gillen is far more sympathetic here than his political mastermind Littlefinger in “Game of Thrones,” while the aptly named Leech (“Downton Abbey”) succeeds at making us despise his slimy tricks.

Best of all is a cameo by Mike Myers as record exec Ray Foster, referencing “Wayne’s World” (1992) by saying, “No one will want to head-bang to this in their cars!” It’s just one of many clever bits by writers Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour”) and Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon”), who go all in on fan service with a shamelessly effective “name that tune” rollout of scenes.

With such an enjoyable surface-level ride, it’s disappointing to learn of the behind-the-scenes turmoil. Director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) was fired toward the end of production, claiming to visit an ill parent but feeding speculation over various #MeToo allegations. He was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (“Eddie the Eagle”), though Singer’s name appears in the credits.

If you can get past the name, the music still wins the day here with Queen’s unique blend of rock, opera and classical genres. It all builds to a blissful recreation of Queen’s celebrated 20-minute set at Live Aid in 1985, right down to the call-and-responses of the crowd. In reality, the concert took place two years before Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis, but the film paints the diagnosis as an “All is Lost” moment before resolving the story with a heroic comeback.

This dichotomy of joyous singalongs and expedited facts make it a tricky flick to review. The film clearly has its flaws, rolling out more like a “Greatest Hits” compilation than a creative concept album. But even if it plays the hits, the experience is so nostalgically infectious as to be irresistible. It’s a movie ripe for critics to overthink their gut-level joy. So forget Rotten Tomatoes this time; any mixed reviews are just radio gaga, radio boo boo, radio blah blah.

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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