For a while, Sacha Baron Cohen was in talks with the remaining members of Queen about starring in a biopic about the group’s flamboyant and charismatic lead singer, Freddie Mercury. But those talks fell through over Cohen’s desire to make an R-rated film, with a frank no-holds-barred look at Mercury’s legendary sexual hedonism, which resulted in his AIDS-related death in 1991 at the age of 45.
The band, however, wanted more of a PG-13 film, and Cohen ultimately walked. Their instincts were wise. Although the film does show Mercury’s often-rampant sexuality, “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” main focus is showing why Mercury has been rated one of the greatest performers of all time.
The amazing part of the film is how Rami Malek channeled Mercury rather than impersonate him. Mercury’s onstage presence was a mixture of camp, flamboyance, and machismo. Early in his career, Mercury’s girlfriend Mary Austin, whom he called the “love” of his life (he left the majority of his wealth to her), tells him he “owns” the audience. Malek does as well.
The filmmakers wisely bookend the movie with Mercury’s legendary performance at Live Aid in 1985. The band had fallen off since their 1980 album, “The Game” (which produced three Top 40 hits, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “The Game,” and “Another One Bites The Dust”). But Mercury’s “owning” of the audience gave them a significant career boost. Their album “It’s A Kind of Magic,” produced a year later, benefited from the Live Aid performance, reaching the number one spot on the U.K. charts in 1986.
Ending on the Live Aid performance is bittersweet. Mercury, who was diagnosed with HIV two years later, was never able to summon that onstage energy again.
Still, Queen was more of ’70s band. In that experimental era, they could play anything— hard rock, love ballads, rockabilly, and of course their pioneering rock opera (possibly the first), “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Mercury’s hedonistic lifestyle was also more common in the pre-AIDS era.
The film conveys that Mercury knew he would not live long. He expended as much energy on sex— he threw legendary drag parties peopled by cocaine-taking midgets— as he did in producing as much music as possible. “You have to slow down, Freddie,” counsels Brian May, the band’s legendary guitarist. Mercury doesn’t, and as result, his relationships with the other band members were sometimes combative.
But Queen was also creatively productive. The film lets the music speak for itself, and Malik, obviously dubbed, emulates Mercury’s moves onstage, while conveying the love affair Mercury had with the audience and vice versa.
Some have criticized the film as homophobic, a cautionary tale about gay hedonism. But “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t a lament about Mercury’s lifestyle; it is about what the music world lost when Mercury died at the age of 45.