28 Oct REVIEW – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
How do you summarise the extraordinary life of a larger-than-life icon in a two-and-a-bit hour film? This is the inherent conundrum facing any biopic, especially those based around a musician. Focus solely on a few key “important” moments in their life, and you’re missing the quieter, simpler times that balance the scales. But attempt to cram everything in, and you run the risk of delivering something entirely shallow. You really do have to sympathise with any screenwriter tasked with this difficult feat.
Then there are those biopics which seemingly gloss over the less-than-favourable elements of someone’s life, delivering something far too light and fluffy. Such is the case with Bohemian Rhapsody, a film that exists as a gushing love letter to Freddie Mercury and Queen, and not much else. Is this the real life? No, this is just fantasy. And maybe that will be enough to rock you. Or it will drive you ga ga. I promise I’ll stop with the song lyric references.
Elevated by an electric performance by Rami Malek, who captures Mercury’s dazzling essence without falling into a farcical impression, a thumping soundtrack that will have you rushing for that well-worn copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits, and a finale that’s rousing and tear-inducing, there’s still hefty entertainment to be found from Bohemian Rhapsody. But you can’t help but wonder what could have been from something that delved a little deeper.
All but ignoring the early life of Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar and sent to boarding school in India, Bohemian Rhapsody jumps straight to 1970s London. It’s here we find 24-year-old art student Freddie Bulsara (Malek) working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, dreaming of a more glamorous life. He’s changed his given name (the Mercury surname comes later), much to the chagrin of his traditional Parsi father, Bomi (Ace Bhatti), and never stays home at night, much to the worry of his adoring mother, Jer (Meneka Das).
An encounter with astrophysics student Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and dental student Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) of the struggling band Smile is just the chance Freddie needs. As luck would have it, the pair are in desperate need of a new lead singer. When Freddie informs the lads he’s their man, he’s instantly laughed off, due to “those teeth,” aka the now-infamous overbite that became Freddie’s trademark. But a hasty display of his impressive pipes quickly silences their dismissal. Throw in a new bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and Queen is born. Yes, this movie moves that quickly.
Continuing this film’s frustrating rapid pace, Queen almost immediately grabs the attention of EMI, signs a contract with the label, and are placed under the management of John Reid (Aidan Gillen), who was also managing Elton John, at the time. From here, the singles, albums, and tours flow, getting progressively more popular and more adventurous, with Queen soon becoming the biggest band in the world. There are ups. There are downs. And, of course, there’s Queen’s glorious (and show-stealing) Live Aid 1985 performance at Wembley Stadium to wrap it all up.
May and Taylor serve as consultants and “executive music producers” (whatever that means) on this project, and that may provide the answer as to why Bohemian Rhapsody seems far too concerned with presenting an awfully sanitised version of the band’s history. There’s a blunt refusal to dig too deeply. Darker moments are hinted at, but maddeningly never fully explored. There’s more to this story. There must be. Sadly, you’ll likely learn more about Queen and Freddie Mercury from a quick Google search than watching this film. If you do take a journey to Queen’s Wikipedia page, you’ll find this film is littered with inaccuracies and twists in its storyline, all done for lazy melodramatic effect.
Before their big performance at Wembley, Freddie breaks the news of his AIDS diagnosis to the band, leading to a moment of brotherly love and support from his compatriots. It never happened. By all accounts, Mercury was not diagnosed with the disease until two years after Live Aid. And even then, the illness was kept hidden from the band until just months before his untimely death. The Live Aid concert is also portrayed as the catalyst for the band’s touching reunion, after Mercury fell out with the boys after leaving to pursue his own career and produce two solo albums. That also never happened. His first solo album was only released the same year as Live Aid and the band never truly “broke up,” but were merely on hiatus.
Is it too picky to deride a narrative film for taking liberties with the truth? Perhaps, but it screams laziness from a screenwriter wanting to create something from nothing. Naturally, all biographical films are never 100% accurate. But these facts are well noted and well known. Playing with them for dramatic theatrics seems redundant by a film that ignores plenty of hefty true-life drama in favour of carefully crafted mistruths. If you’re none the wiser, these moments clearly won’t stand out. But for anyone with a passing knowledge of Mercury and the band, it’s impossible to overlook.
Thankfully, Bohemian Rhapsody is quite earnest in its portrayal of Mercury’s sexuality. It never shies away from the fact Freddie Mercury was a gay man. However, everything related to his life off-stage is frustratingly presented in a decidedly PG-13 fashion. Oh, there’s plenty of naughty moments. He kisses men. He cruises a random trucker outside a highway diner bathroom. He pinches a male waiter’s bottom. He even visits a debaucherous gay leather club. But it’s all fleetingly presented and in a pointlessly innocent way. It simply cannot be called an authentic portrayal of someone so known for his sexual prowess. It’s true Freddie never wanted to be the poster boy for homosexuality, keeping his sexuality hidden from the public as long as he possibly could. But there’s no reason a biopic should be as equally coy.
That’s not to suggest this needed to be an all-out orgy of sex, drugs, and rock n roll. It’s just Freddie’s struggles with his sexuality are what make him such a fascinating character study. He was someone so outlandishly suggestive on-stage that it’s entirely intriguing how and why he would become so completely introverted off-stage. There are glimpses of Freddie’s sadness, as he lays alone on his bed in his lavish mansion, desperately longing for somebody to love (sorry, last one I promise). Yet the screenplay fails to explore this melancholia with any semblance of contemplation, leaving us with far more questions than answers.
There’s a haphazardly handled attempt at portraying one of Freddie’s fleeting romances with Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), one of the band’s early managers, who, if you believe the film, was Queen’s equivalent of Yoko Ono. Written as a scheming, devious, and jealous diva, Prenter borders on a cartoonish villain, as he plots to lead Freddie away from the band, for reasons entirely unknown. The film isn’t concerned with exploring what motivated this apparent scoundrel to all but destroy the successful quartet. Again, this is all wildly exaggerated for the film, given the band never truly parted ways.
Alright, enough bitching. If all you came for is the music (and that’s highly bloody likely), you’re ultimately handed a pseudo jukebox musical that rivals anything either Mamma Mia film dished up. Covering Queen’s ridiculously fabulous back catalogue, Bohemian Rhapsody serves up all the big hitters, wisely delivered by Freddie himself. While Joaquin Phoenix was able to impressively recreate Johnny Cash’s vocals in Walk the Line, Malek thankfully isn’t given the impossible task of doing the same with Mercury. Is it a cheat? Sure, but the end result is rather seamless, thanks to Malek’s admirable lipsynching skills.
Malek really is the saving grace of Bohemian Rhapsody, in a performance that hopefully still captures the attention of awards season, even though it’s clear the film itself will not. This is the part he was clearly always meant to play, even if his physical appearance hardly resembles Mercury. But with some fake teeth (which are terribly distracting at first, but you soon acclimatise), that infamous moustache, and an extravagant array of costumes by Julian Day, the transformation becomes pleasingly uncanny. But it’s Mercury’s flamboyant energy and intoxicating charm that Malek truly captures, gifting us an earnest performance that rarely ventures into caricature. He disappears into this role, managing to find the tortured, lonely soul hidden by Mercury’s exuberant personality. When Malek is on-stage, the results are electric, with the actor recreating Mercury’s dazzling stage persona with pitch-perfect accuracy. It’s a performance that’s worth the price of admission alone, ultimately rescuing the film from being a total misstep.
All will likely be forgiven by most after the exhilarating and moving finale featuring an almost-exact (and 15-minute long) recreation of Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid. While the digital effects work of the 72,000-strong crowd within Wembley Stadium leaves a lot to be desired, the action on-stage is really quite extraordinary. Clad in that iconic outfit of a white singlet, tight blue jeans, and a black leather armband, Malek inhabits Mercury’s every strut and movement. Freddie always came alive on-stage, and Malek’s performance reaches a new level here as well. Some may bemoan the film concluding here, rather than Mercury’s untimely death. But director Bryan Singer clearly wanted Bohemian Rhapsody to go out on a high, and what a magnificent high it ends up being. If you’re not crying or cheering (or both) by this film’s conclusion, you must not be human.
If nothing else, Bohemian Rhapsody will remind you of the magic of Queen and the greatness of Freddie Mercury. But Malek’s sublime performance and the smashing soundtrack of Queen’s greatest hits are ultimately masking a shallow, generic, by-the-numbers film that consistently plays it far too safe. Singer clearly wants this film to stand as a glowing tribute piece rather than a rumination of the men behind the music. That will sit perfectly fine with some, but will likely frustrate just as many. Music gods often retain an air of mystery around them. For now, Freddie Mercury’s mystery remains mostly intact.
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Anthony McCarten
Producers: Graham King, Jim Beach
Cinematography: Brandon Trost
Production Design: Aaron Haye
Music: John Ottman
Editor: John Ottman
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: 1st November 2018 (Australia)