Updated: Jan 15
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) is a stunning film. Lingering in development limbo for eight years, the project went through several writers, directors and lead actors before settling into shape. For a while, it seemed as if it was a film that would never materialise, particularly when, late in production, director Bryan Singer went AWOL and was dismissed from the project. But miraculously, under the watchful eye of Singer’s successor Dexter Fletcher guiding the film through post-production, this foot stomping crowd-pleaser has arrived.
The film charts the rise of the rock band Queen over a fifteen-year period, culminating in their iconic appearance at 1985's once-in-a-lifetime global charity event, Live Aid (1985). We meet awkward and shy Heathrow baggage handler Farrokh Bulsara, a misfit who never doubts he will be a star. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor need a new singer in their band ‘Smile’, as their previous one has jumped ship. Two name changes later – for band and singer – and a legend is born.
Bohemian Rhapsody paints the other members of Queen in fairly broad strokes. May is ‘the clever one’, enquiring and analytical; Taylor is the quintessential rock drummer with a penchant for fast ladies and fast cars (resulting in one of the funniest running gags in the film); and bass player John ‘Deacy’ Deacon is the reserved and quizzical perfectionist. Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello are pretty much pitch perfect in their portrayals of the band. Lee imitates Brian May’s voice so unerringly that one wonders if May nipped in the recording booth and did the ADR himself. Mazzello’s catalogue of sardonic expressions are worthy of their own exhibition. But ultimately, as absurdly talented as they are, the three remaining members of Queen are not the centre of attention. The actors do an exceptional job bringing them to life, but when it comes down to it, this is a film about Freddie Mercury.
Rami Malek is mesmeric as Freddie Mercury. The singer had such a unique talent and physicality, that for any actor to attempt to play him would be a hugely daunting task. Ben Whishaw was once touted to take on the role, and infamously, Sacha Baron Cohen during the film’s initial development. Stubbornness from both parties (Baron Cohen vs. the band and producers) soon put paid to that version of the film. However, fortune favours the bold, and serendipity favoured Rami Malek, who completely embodies the contradictions, vulnerability and bravado that were part of Mercury’s persona, as well as recreating with aplomb the commanding force of nature he was on stage. It is a truly heroic performance.
The narrative of Bohemian Rhapsody does play it safe, but Anthony McCarten’s screenplay skilfully interweaves documented events with considerable dramatic licence. Sure, Rock in Rio (1985) happens about eight years too early, and ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ is shown to be performed on tour in 1974 when it wasn’t released until 1978. But who cares when it is such a stonking live recording from 1979? That is not the focus of the film. To the eagle-eyed Queen fan, the inaccuracies of the timeline could be jarring, but this matters not to the casual viewer. As a band-sanctioned summation of the life of one of the most popular and celebrated talents in pop culture, it actually contains far more candour than one might expect. It has been suggested that the film does not delve deeply enough into Mercury’s hedonistic lifestyle and is almost apologetic about his homosexuality. In all honesty, the film sensitively explores his conflict over his sexuality, spending a large portion of the first act establishing his relationship with one-time girlfriend and lifelong friend Mary Austin, played tenderly by Lucy Boynton. It presents a man who spent much of his life caught between expressing who he truly was and regretting the loss of the love of his life who, out of self-preservation, he had to keep at arm’s length. The film also does plenty to show how he was led astray by a snake in his camp, which ultimately contributed to his tragic end. To show any more would be to become voyeuristic, and that is not the tone of the film. Ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody is required to protect the legacy of both Mercury and the band. It is a celebration, not a peep show.
Which brings me to the villain of the piece, Mercury’s personal manager, Paul Prenter, played by the appropriately named Allen Leech. Prenter is an omni-present figure, worming his way into Mercury’s life and affairs, curating a carousel of indulgence and debauchery, isolating him from his friends and almost causing Queen to implode. It is only relatively recently that May and Taylor have spoken out about Prenter’s involvement in Mercury’s life, so for him to feature so heavily in the narrative is telling.
The sound design and mix is exquisite and explosive, interspersing newly remixed studio and live recordings with seamless overdubs by Mercury soundalike Marc Martel. This especially comes into play during the concert montages, and the remounting of the band’s Live Aid performance, which is a spectacular and emotionally charged tour de force. One could be forgiven for thinking that Queen were the only band playing that day, and the film is only too happy to concur. Brief, off screen strains of Dire Straits and a banner reading ‘We ♥ U2’ do little to redress this imbalance. But very few would dispute that Queen stole the show, and its re-creation acts as the band reclaiming their rock crown, and as Mercury’s redemption.
There is something about Mercury’s story that means a lot to people. I could almost feel the trepidation and anticipation as Brian May’s marvellous rendition of the 20th Century Fox fanfare opened the film. An audience willing the film to do justice to the legacy. And it does. The script does veer towards melodrama in places, and the pacing sags slightly just before the denouement, but through the sheer verve of the production and performances (notable mentions go to Tom Hollander as the band’s manager Jim Beach and Mike Myers as a weary EMI executive), the killer Queen soundtrack, and a stellar lead performance by Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody has a kind of magic dynamism that made me want to see it all over again. So I did. And both times, the audience applauded at the end. Rhapsodic indeed.
| To be continued ... |