By John H. Foote
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, though they were three weeks from the end of the shoot. Yes, editing had to take place, and there is an argument for a director overseeing the editing of their work, but Singer was fired, dumped, gone from 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), just as we 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), doing his own singing as the mournful rocker. Both Paul Dana and John Cusack portrayed, respectively, a young and older Bryan Wilson, the genius of the Beach Boy’s in Love and Mercy (2015). The performances mentioned were superb, but just as it can work, so can it go wildly off the rails.
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. Where I think both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon failed as Johnny Cash and June Carter in Walk the Line (2005) was that neither captured the faith in God each of the two possessed. Well known publicly, it was pretty much erased from the film. And they gave her an Oscar? Must have been a very lean year.
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 the actor 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 rock, ballad, and opera. 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, once launched, 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 twenty-three 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 that astonishing charisma Mercury had. I am not sure he convinces the entire film, 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) and with Malek in HBO’s The Pacific (2010), who portrays the bass player for Queen. Mazzola is a wonderful actor, a true character actor, able to slip in and out of movies virtually unnoticed, like a true 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 had ten years in planning the film, there was more than enough time to research.
An Oscar nomination is a possibility for Malek, by no means a lock. A win is doubtful but should bring more great roles to this gifted young actor.
As much as I enjoyed Malek and that great, great Queen music, I found myself wishing for more.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.