Bohemian Rhapsody review: "plummets into cliché at the drop of a plectrum"
The long-delayed biopic of rock band Queen takes too many liberties with the facts, but Rami Malek captures the essence of Freddie Mercury
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Like most film biographies, Bohemian Rhapsody is a bit of both, and its makers appear to have no qualms about tweaking the truth to serve the particular story they’re determined to tell. A touch of dramatic licence here and there is perhaps forgivable, but occasionally the rewriting of such recent history contributes to an unsatisfying movie that lost its way long before the cameras stopped rolling.
Queen were (are?) one of the biggest names in rock, flamboyant front man Freddie Mercury an iconic figure whose legend continues to overshadow their place in the showbiz firmament, despite his band mates’ subsequent efforts to keep the brand alive via long-running jukebox musicals and concert tours with replacement singers. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor are credited as producers of the film, suggesting they signed off on everything that appears on screen, even when the story takes liberties with what actually happened during the group’s first 15 years.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the film, begins and ends with the group’s memorable “comeback” at Live Aid in 1985, but more about the bookends later. Sandwiched between those admittedly impressive scenes is the story of Queen’s stratospheric rise to the top and an over-simplified precis of the period in their career when the wheels threatened to come off, recounted in typical, predictable biopic fashion.
We first see Mercury (Rami Malek) in 1970 when he was still Farrokh Bulsara, a menial baggage handler at Heathrow airport, suffering the slings and arrows of racial slurs and kicking against a suffocating home life with his doting mother and taciturn, traditional-values father. Fortuitously, he finds his future musical soul mates mere minutes after their previous singer has quit, handing them song lyrics scrawled on a scrap of paper and giving them an impromptu display of his vocal prowess. Had the script inserted a “let’s do the show right here!” line it would not have been a huge surprise.
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Queen’s ascent to superstardom is chronicled at a worryingly breakneck speed, laughingly so when a first meeting with future manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen) has him dangling the twin carrots of a Top of the Pops appearance and a promotional tour of Japan before any mention of a recording contract that would give them something to actually promote. It’s followed by some blurring of events that should sound alarm bells among long-term fans.
Montages are a staple part of biopics, convenient devices to drive the narrative forward, but why is the passage of Queen wowing American audiences for the first time held together with them performing a song they wouldn’t write for another four years? Similarly, a little later on, minutes after an onscreen date stamp informs us that it’s 1980, we’re treated to the quasi-comic sight of May in the studio assembling the building blocks of We Will Rock You, seemingly having forgotten its inclusion on an album released in 1977.
Live Aid is more troubling, though. Scenes of phones ringing off their hooks only after Queen have taken to the stage of Wembley Stadium give the impression the all-star event was a fund-raising flop up until that point. Such an arrogant suggestion amounts to a smug, self-congratulatory distortion of the facts that does no one involved in the film (and especially May and Taylor) any favours whatsoever.
Worse still, the film depicts Mercury telling the rest of the group he has AIDS just a week before the show, when any half-decent published biography of the singer dates his diagnosis as coming two years later. Also, it’s crassly presented as the inevitable outcome of Freddie’s gay lifestyle, with leather-clad party animal hangers-on painted as pantomime villains.
The flipside to this uncomfortably superior moral tone, this awkward and misfiring reinterpretation of previously well-documented information, is the superb performance of Malek, in both capturing the essence of Mercury’s personality and in stunning feats of mimicry of the singer in his natural habitat, the concert stage. True, he initially has trouble getting to grips with the prosthetic designed to replicate Freddie’s familiar overbite, and in early scenes he has the look of someone hoping to win over the judges of a hippy gurning contest. However, by the time the film reaches the signature Mercury look of short hair and moustache he’s settled in to his character’s skin with confident bravado.
As for the other members of Queen, there’s very little to say other than they’re as poorly sketched as the rest of the players, be it Freddie’s suburban family, Mike Myers’s underwhelming cameo as a record company boss, or Lucy Boynton as the singer’s long-suffering soul mate, Mary Austin. We learn (through a string of nudge-nudge references) that Taylor was a bit of a ladies’ man, that May is a serious individual who only cares about the music (“man”), and that bassist John Deacon was, to all intents and purposes, wallpaper.
When they are given something to say or do, it’s in a script that plummets into cliché at the drop of a plectrum; cheesy declarations about refusing to compromise their art, or steadfastly resisting Mercury’s eagerness to ditch the rock anthems and take the band in the direction of dreaded disco.
Many of the film’s shortcomings can perhaps be attributed to its fractious journey to the screen. Sacha Baron Cohen, originally cast as Mercury, walked out following reported clashes with the rest of Queen (May in particular) over how the group should be portrayed, and director Bryan Singer was fired after what press claimed were “violent disagreements” with Malek. Singer retains sole credit, while his replacement Dexter Fletcher has to make do with an executive producer nod.
Such an unsettled working environment lends weight to the theory that those who stayed were just desperate to get the project finished at any cost, even at the expense of quality control or attention to detail. In that sense, a dramatisation about the making of Bohemian Rhapsody might have resulted in a much better film than what we’ve been given.
Bohemian Rhapsody is released in cinemas on Wednesday 24 October