Bohemian Rhapsody (Cert 12A)
US/UK (2018) Dir. Bryan Singer
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
No, it’s a movie
About Freddie Mercury
Well, somebody had to! I am a massive Queen fan, have been ever since my Dad bought me the Flash Gordon soundtrack (on cassette!) when I was a kid and I played the hell out of it. Queen II is my favourite album of all time.
Therefore, a film like Bohemian Rhapsody should be designed for Queen diehards, while the band’s crossover appeal and Freddie’s legendary, infectious showmanship would pique the interest of casual fans who know the hits. Yet this film has been a decade in the making, beset with the usual problems of “creative differences” and sacked directors.
It wasn’t until Brian May and Roger Taylor stepped in that things finally settled and the film was made – although credited director Bryan Singer was fired towards the end and Dexter Fletcher finished it – but how hands on they were is a pertinent query given how some details are treated.
As a biopic, one needs to be aware of dramatic license and some liberties being taken; unfortunate this film doesn’t just take liberties, it often takes the Mickey! It starts with Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) waking up on the morning of Live Aid in July 1985, then just as Queen are about to hit the stage, we jump back to 1970.
Farrokh Balsara is a baggage handler at Heathrow airport and music fan, following a local band named Smile. When lead singer and bassist Tim Staffell (Jack Roth) decides to quit, Farrokh offers his vocal services to the remaining members, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Shortly after, they recruit bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and the new look Smile make their debut.
This of course isn’t quite how it happened but the sake of expedience and this being a dramatisation, this is how it goes. Indeed, the rags to riches journey of young rock band sticks rigidly to the music biopic blueprint: they get a manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen) – actually their second manager in real life – who gets them a record deal then on to Top Of The Pops and finally, success.
In 1975, EMI records demand Queen give them another hit single after Killer Queen so the band give them a six-minute rock opera which infuriates their boss (Mike Myers), claiming the band have killed their career. Of course we all know differently, but this aspect of the band’s story takes a backseat, and hereafter we observe Freddie’s personal life and how his handling of fame nearly destroyed Queen in the 80’s.
At least according to this story. Of the facts that are indisputable, Freddie did love a woman named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), remaining his friend right until his death; Freddie did hook up with personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), his manipulation of Freddie being the root of the problems between him and the band; and Freddie did spend the rest of his life with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker).
Freddie’s love of excess and flamboyance is depicted here with nary a flinch but also with a slight restraint given the notoriety of his lavish lifestyle, yet makes the point of showing us how Freddie was compensating for having to hide his sexuality and not having the stable family life of his band mates.
The only problem this poses is in the balance of portraying Freddie the performer and Freddie the private gay man, leading to some bemoaning the toning down of the latter. As this is a music biopic and not a personal one, I found this to be fairly judged within this remit although there are times where subtlety and tact would have been preferable over blatant signposting.
Where this film will cause conniption for Queen fans is in the treatment of the chronology of events which has been wilfully abused as alluded to earlier. Songs appear in the story long before they do in the real timeline, the most egregious being Brian May bringing We Will Rock You to the band in 1980 three years AFTER it was a huge hit! And Roger Taylor’s hair is long throughout when he had it cut in 1977!
But…. There are many positives. It is a very well made film, with some nice creative touches in celebrating some major moments like the giddiness of the band’s sudden global success to the troubled press conference where Freddie is pestered about his sexuality. The blend of real life crowds and newly recreate concerts is very well done and sufficient minutiae have been observed on occasion.
Rami Malek’s star is surely in the ascendant after this incredible and astute portrayal of Freddie, a truly committed essaying of a complex and conflicted man that must have an Oscar nomination waiting for him. Malek may not have done all of the singing (Marc Martel deserves that credit) but we believe he did, such is the credibility of his performance.
Gwilym Lee also becomes Brian May, right down to subtle mannerism and soft voice that he could be May’s genuine double. Ben Hardy’s drumming was spot on in impressively mimicking Roger Taylor, but he was still Peter Beale from Eastenders; and Joseph Mazzello makes John Deacon too nondescript but played the bass well enough.
The burning question, after the mauling the critics gave this film, is whether Bohemian Rhapsody is as bad as they say. The answer is no. It’s not a “bad” film – it is too well made, too well acted, lovingly replicates the featured time periods and the soundtrack is enough to encourage enjoyment. It is however, flawed in its narrative, annoyingly misleading with the timeline and suffers from telling a thirty-year story in 134 minutes.
I welled up during the emotional final performance of We Are The Champions from Live Aid; if being moved like that doesn’t save a film from being labelled “bad”, nothing will.
Thank you Freddie!
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black