Nutshell: let’s let Freddie do it, shall we? “I feel alive/And the world—I’ll turn it inside out/Yeah/I’m floating around/In ecstasy”. Yep, that sums it up. The bar has been raised for the musical biopic. Good luck to future films in this genre, this film is damn near perfect. It’ll be tough to top Rhapsody‘s blend of storytelling and pulls-you-in performances. Grade: A
“There’s no musical ghetto that can contain us.”
Story: Rock band Queen starts as a group of lads trying to make it big, ends up performing at Live Aid in 1985. Mercurial (ahem) lead singer Freddie Mercury serves as their frontman, and as the band’s popularity increases, an intensely private Freddie tries to shield his life from the world.
Genre I’d Put It In: Top-Shelf Biopics
Remake, Sequel, Based-on, or Original: Based on the formation of the rock band Queen, and especially that of its lead singer Freddie Mercury.
Gotta say: Okay fair notice; I’m a huge Queen fan. I grew up to “We Are The Champions” and even sung it in middle school. A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are on constant rotation here in the AFan homestead, and I when I read the opening of Good Omens, I approved of the book immediately when I saw a mention of Queen. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to write this review. I attended a screening for Rhapsody last week, and yet I haven’t been able to tap anything out until now. I felt like everything I was about to say wasn’t good enough, didn’t quite measure up. You’re watching today’s episode of Inside A Reviewer’s Mind, folks. So here goes. I hope it’ll do.
Rhapsody feels like a true peek behind the curtain, probably because band members Brian May and Rodger Taylor were on board as creative consultants. It’s also co-produced by Jim Beach, Queen’s manager. Tack on writing credits by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) and Peter Morgan (Netflix’s The Crown), and it’s a recipe for one outstanding film. My only concern was director Bryan Singer; he’s been really good (The Usual Suspects) and really bad (X-Men: Apocalypse), so I figured it’d be a crapshoot on how Singer would handle all of this good luck thrown his way. Turns out he did a fantastic job.
Rhapsody starts out with a flash-forward, as Freddie get ready to go to Wembley Stadium for Queen’s performance at Live Aid. He’s 100% in performer mode; hair styled perfectly, mirrored shades and leather jacket worn just so, and Singer cheekily focuses on Freddie’s crotch as he exits the tour bus. Just before he takes the stage, the story turns back to 1970, when Freddie was just a boy hitting clubs to hear his favorite band, Smile. As luck would have it, Smile’s lead singer quits, and after an impromptu burst of song, Freddie invites the remaining members – May and Taylor – to consider him as a replacement. Queen was born.
While May and Taylor consulted on Rhapsody, this film isn’t a whitewash job. The story takes us from initial success to Freddie’s extreme diva behavior, from outrageous parties to Freddie’s crippling loneliness during “the in-between moments”. As his fellow band members married and had kids, Freddie was alone, trying to hide his sexuality from the masses. Freddie’s ex-wife Mary (a wonderfully understated Lucy Boynton) is shown to be his port in the storm, but when he could no longer deny who he was, they split, and Rhapsody shows Freddie’s pain during their brief estrangement.
While Rhapsody plays a bit fast and loose with its timeline, but letting everything come to a climax just before Live Aid works here. Yes, Freddie wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until 1987, and Live Aid was in 1985. Yes, his relationship with partner Jim Hutton feels a bit shoehorned in, but they only got together in ’85. And sure, Freddie’s sexuality isn’t in-your-face. But today’s acceptance wasn’t the norm in the 70s and 80s. Gay Times magazine had said Mercury was “a ‘scene-queen’…but unwilling to analyze or justify his lifestyle”, and Rhapsody perfectly encapsulates Freddie’s prima-donna behavior while keeping his private thoughts and actions just out of the camera’s reach. While there are some who decry Freddie’s “closeting” in Rhapsody, I see it as a nod to the true life and times of the era. In this story there’s absolutely no doubt what Freddie is up to, we just don’t get the frame-by-frame. And I’m fine with that.
But there’s lots of real life here as well, including the moment “Bohemian Rhapsody” first played on the radio. That was thanks to Freddie’s close friend Kenny Everett, and London DJ who was just as wonderfully flamboyant as Freddie’s on-stage persona. Rhapsody makes this moment hilarious and subversive, including the famous “Oops, my finger must’ve slipped!” I’m glad to find out that Freddie was just as much of a cat-parent as I am, with an incredibly soft side for all of his four-legged darlings. “Each cat has its own room.” I never knew I could love Freddie more than I already do. But? Boom. I swoon. Fellow band members May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) are given a bit of fleshing out, but the majority of character focus is on Mercury himself. Though I do love how Hardy plays Taylor as a gloriously unrepentant hound; it’s more a loving tease from friends than an impingement of Taylor’s character, and Hardy keeps things light and fun.
What about the music, you ask? The real singing you hear in Rhapsody is a combination of Malek and singer Marc Matel, who is known for his amazing Queen covers. It’s got just enough of an echo of Freddie that I got goosebumps several times during the film. (FYI, the official soundtrack focuses on the band’s performances.) And as Freddie Mercury, Malek delivers an absolutely astonishing performance. There were times when I was absolutely gobsmacked; Malek transcends mere simulation and becomes Freddie. During the climactic Live Aid performance, I felt like I was back in ’85, in front of my television waiting with baited breath for Queen to take the stage. And yeah, I bawled like a baby. But there were bittersweet, joyful tears. Am I blending reality with facsimile, giving Rhapsody a glossier sheen due to the power my memory has over my heart? Maybe. But I don’t care. And the Malek’s performance will suck you in just as hard.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to read more about Freddie and his cats. Go see Rhapsody. Then see it again. Hell, you’ll probably catch me in the theater with you. I’m planning on going again. And again.
#Protip: Check out the real Live Aid performance right here. You’re welcome.