‘Bo­hemian Rhap­sody’ won’t rock you, but Malek will

The Myanmar Times - - Metro -

WHERE does a preen­ing, pan­sex­ual rock god get his pow­ers? The Fred­die Mer­cury biopic Bo­hemian Rhap­sody traces his sonorous majesty to an un­likely place: his back teeth.

Mer­cury, nee Far­rokh Bul­sara, was born with four ex­tra in­cisors, giv­ing him a big­ger mouth. In­tro­duc­ing him­self to his fu­ture Queen band­mates Mer­cury, as played by Rami Malek, ex­plains that the added chom­pers have ben­e­fits be­yond a provoca­tive, pro­nounced over­bite. It en­dows him with en­hanced vo­cal range.

Teeth-as­sisted or not, Mer­cury’s voice was so ex­pan­sive that it prompted gen­uine sci­en­tific in­quiry. But range is one thing sorely lack­ing in Bryan Singer’s Bo­hemian Rhap­sody, a slav­ishly con­ven­tional rock biopic that at ev­ery turn opts for the stereo­typ­i­cal de­spite a sub­ject who de­voted him­self to the un­con­ven­tional.

It’s a re­mark­ably bland movie about a de­li­ciously vi­brant per­former.

Yet while Bo­hemian Rhap­sody is so hol­lowly, even com­i­cally for­mu­laic that even Dewey Cox of Walk Hard might snicker, it’s filled, often fan­tas­ti­cally, by Malek’s sin­u­ous, fully in­hab­ited per­for­mance as the Queen front­man. It’s as if he didn’t get the note about the half-hearted film­mak­ing go­ing on around him, or if he did, he’s hell-bent on ig­nor­ing it.

Malek, the Mr Robot ac­tor, throws him­self into ev­ery strut­ting sec­ond of screen time as Mer­cury. He lacks both Mer­cury’s voice (it was over­dubbed for singing and per­for­mance scenes) and Mer­cury’s teeth (Malek was out­fit­ted with fake ones). But Malek’s per­for­mance, es­pe­cially on stage, is so full-bod­ied that he tran­scends both his own dif­fer­ences with Mer­cury and the tepid sur­round­ing melo­drama.

That Bo­hemian Rhap­sody is a bit of a mess isn’t al­to­gether a sur­prise. Singer was fired to­ward the end of shoot­ing for not show­ing up on set (Singer said it was to visit an ill par­ent) and was re­placed by Dex­ter Fletcher. Singer re­mains the cred­ited di­rec­tor; Fletcher is listed as a pro­ducer.

The script, too, un­der­went sev­eral passes be­fore one by An­thony McCarten (Dark­est Hour, The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing) ul­ti­mately pre­vailed. The film opens mo­ments be­fore Queen’s Live Aid per­for­mance at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium in 1985, and – as if by rock biopic de­cree – shifts back in time to young Fred­die, in his mid-20s and liv­ing with his par­ents in the Lon­don sub­urbs.

Mer­cury was born to a Parsi fam­ily from Zanz­ibar (he at­tended board­ing school in In­dia), but we get only the slight­est of hints of his fam­ily her­itage or what made Mer­cury run from it. By the time we meet him, he hasn’t yet adopted his Ro­man god moniker (more than a stage name, he made “Mer­cury” le­gal), but he might as well have. Young Fred­die is al­ready a larger-than-life fig­ure clearly des­tined to a life of skin-tight jump­suits and glam-rock an­thems. In a flash he goes from sling­ing lug­gage on the Heathrow tar­mac to con­vinc­ing gui­tarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drum­mer Roger Tay­lor (Ben Hardy) that he’s their new lead singer.

Ev­ery­thing in Bo­hemian Rhap­sody hap­pens less with the thrust of life than the rapid-fire re­count­ing of a bi­o­graph­i­cal his­tory, some­times rig­or­ously in step with Wikipedia, some­times tak­ing short­cuts to avoid any­thing that strays out­side a neatly con­trived nar­ra­tive. In the span of min­utes, Queen is a sen­sa­tion with a record con­tract (Mike Mey­ers joins for a tongue-incheek cameo as EMI ex­ec­u­tive Ray Foster) and as­pi­ra­tions for much more: a world tour, a farout con­cept al­bum and be­yond. Our sense is that Mer­cury has swiftly – and with cu­ri­ously lit­tle trou­ble – re­alised his true self, in all his pea­cock­ing glory.

The con­flict, hinted at in pass­ing glances in be­tween record­ing ses­sions, is that Mer­cury, who died of AIDS-re­lated pneu­mo­nia in 1991 at 45, isn’t quite so free off stage as he is on, de­spite all his rad­i­cal flam­boy­ance.

Much time is spent with his long­time part­ner Mary Austin (Lucy Boy­ton) and, later, with a di­a­bol­i­cal per­sonal man­ager-boyfriend, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who gets most of the blame for any­thing bad Mer­cury ever did.

But the film mostly sticks to the fa­mil­iar tra­jec­tory of rock star­dom: stu­dio magic, back­stage ex­cess, band in­fight­ing, mis­guided solo ef­forts, drug prob­lems and – that most heinous of men­aces in the mu­sic biopic – the temp­ta­tion of disco.

The only time Bo­hemian Rhap­sody works is when it fi­nally re­treats from not just the stan­dard biopic nar­ra­tive but from sto­ry­telling al­to­gether. It con­cludes with a nearly song-by-song re­cre­ation of the band’s re­union show at Live Aid which, de­spite the movie’s fudged time­line, took place two years be­fore Mer­cury’s AIDS di­ag­no­sis. Still, the power comes mainly from the tunes and from Mer­cury/Malek’s mag­nif­i­cent stage pres­ence. Bo­hemian Rhap­sody might be easy come, easy go, but Malek makes for a show-stop­ping sil­hou­etto of a man. – AP

Photo: Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Fox via AP

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