The anticipation surrounding this film has been huge, with audiences and fans of Queen wanting to see how Rami Malek manages in the role of rock star Freddie Mercury. Others will be wanting to see if director Bryan Singer’s firing has had a negative impact on the film. So much of a film like this depends on believing the performance of the lead character. We believed Gary Busey as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story (1978), believed Sissy Spacek’s magnificent performance as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) which won her an Academy Award. Jessica Lange beautifully embodied Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985) and Val Kilmer was mesmerizing as Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991). Did Jamie Foxx give a great performance as Ray Charles or did he do a great impersonation in Ray (2004)? Though he won an Oscar and much acclaim, I never felt I was watching Ray Charles which the aforementioned performances did for me, they brought the soul of the character to the screen. So is what Malek does in the film a great impersonation or great performance?
The actor is electrifying to watch, you cannot take your eyes off of him, but after seeing the film twice, I am not sure if he merely impersonates Freddie Mercury or captures his wounded soul and brings it to the screen.
The narrative is typical biographical film stuff, the origins of Queen, Mercury joining and more or less taking over, the behind the scenes recording of their first number one hit “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which merged opera with ballad with rock. Over six minutes in length, the executives did not believe the radio stations would ever play it, but they did and it became a sensation. From there, the film explores how success impacted both the band and Mercury; it plays like most biopics, sort of a greatest hits of his life. There is nothing earth-shattering revealed. Both his homosexuality and contracting AIDS are very lightly dealt with as the film surges ahead to its miraculous final third.
The Live Aid performance by Queen is often called the greatest live performance in rock history. For 23 minutes Mercury and Queen took the stage and gave a soaring, stunning performance in singing a batch of their songs. Mercury was near majestic, strutting, teasing, daring the audience to go with him. And they did. It is during this remarkable sequence that Malek soars, and I mean flies as high as an actor can fly.
During the Live Aid sequence, Malek inhabits Mercury in every way; he IS Mercury. During these scenes, recreated with sparkling detail, Malek fills the screen with the astonishing charisma Mercury had. I am not sure he convinces the entire film, as there are moments when his work feels forced, but he does find his groove and by the time we get to Live Aid, he has become Mercury.
The only other actors to really make any kind of mark in the film are Joe Mazzola, best known as little Tim in Jurassic Park (1993), who portrays the bass player for Queen. Mazzola is a true character actor, able to slip in and out of movies virtually unnoticed, like a chameleon. The other is the notoriously prickly Mike Myers as a record executive, bringing the right amount of smugness to a suit, talking down to the artists.
The film belongs to Malek, and Singer directed it as a celebration of the man. He has done that, but I knew nothing more about Mercury than I did going in. It felt like the writers used Wikipedia rather than getting the band to talk. Considering they spent 10 years planning the film, there was more than enough time to research.
An Oscar nomination is a possibility for Malek, by no means a lock.
As much as I enjoyed Malek and that great, great Queen music, I found myself wishing for more.