Review – Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Director: Brian Singer
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Tom Hollander, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech
Triumphant and celebratory, Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody – Singer retains his director’s credit despite being replaced during production by Dexter Fletcher – is an authorised biopic charting the rise of beloved British rock band Queen. Seemingly a very ‘authorised’ biopic. Rather than taking us behind closed doors to give us personal insight into the experience of that meteoric rise, you get the impression that the goal of surviving band members Brian May and Roger Taylor in serving as producers of the film was to protect a legacy and control a history.
Guitarist May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Taylor (Ben Hardy) from the pub band Smile are contemplating giving up on their rock dreams after their lead singer quits the band, when they encounter Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), a peculiar, young Zanzabari immigrant with an incredible vocal range, who offers his services. Bulsari, who goes by Freddie, encourages them to cut back on the touring and put their resources into cutting a demo, changing their name to Queen. While the record executives don’t quite get what they’re selling, audiences definitely do. They are a collection of misfits playing for the misfits, and led by their flamboyant lead singer, now known as Freddie Mercury, they aim to give the world something they’ve never heard before. It would make them the biggest band on the planet, and Mercury one of its most iconic stars.
When films really sing, there is a magical unity of form and content. The right story being told in the right way. For a band as undeniably unconventional as Queen the most glaring thing about Bohemian Rhapsody is just how generic it feels. A disappointingly bland, paint-by-numbers rock story, it hits the same cliched beats we would expect to see in the story of any successful band. We see the record executive who doesn’t get it and makes statements that in hindsight will make him look silly. We get multiple recording studio montages in which well known hits are layered together. We see at least three ‘I’ve got this idea for a song’ scenes.
While insistent that this is a film about the band rather than just Freddie Mercury, there is no denying that Bohemian Rhapsody is the Rami Malek show. What initially strikes you as an impressive piece of mimicry – even if the mouthful of prosthetic teeth designed to replicate Mercury’s distinct overbite is somewhat off-putting – evolves into a tremendous physical performance, as Malek embodies the legendary frontman. It is hard to believe they had ever wanted anyone else for the role, though for a long time it was Sacha Baron Cohen attached to play Mercury. Malek effectively replicates a number of iconic Queen moments, with his singing voice blended with actual recordings of Mercury to stage the performances.
But more than just recreate, Malek is also charged with carrying the majority of the film’s drama. It is his struggles with identity, whether in the form of his sexuality or his ethnicity, and the temptation to leverage his stardom into a solo career, that drive the film, while the band’s story presented as a pretty incident free ascent into superstardom. However, Bohemian Rhapsody seems determined to play it safe, to tread lightly in dealing with Mercury’s private life. While an obviously hedonistic character, Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is content for the more salacious elements of Mercury’s life to be merely alluded to rather than shown. This distinctly PG take on Mercury’s story means a lot of rough edges are smoothed over. The film doesn’t run away from Mercury’s sexuality but nor does it really explore it. Rather, the film’s central relationship is between Freddie and his fiancee turned platonic best friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), with none of the singer’s gay relationships explored in nearly the same depth and fulness.
While his bandmates are nowhere near as fleshed out as characters – May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) are presented as a lovely group of level-headed gents who are largely willing to roll with Freddie’s extravagances because they enjoy their band – the film does a commendable job of demonstrating that Mercury was not the sole creative voice in Queen, showing the other band members contributions to writing and rewriting some of their iconic songs. There is also a nice inside joke in having an unrecognisable Mike Myers playing an EMI executive a quarter of a century after his Wayne’s World catapulted ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ back into the charts.
Of course, alongside Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody’s other drawcard is the music. The film’s final sequence is a show-stopper: a near complete reenactment of Queen’s twenty-minute set at Live Aid, a performance considered one of the greatest rock shows of all time. That sequence aside, though, the other performances which pepper the film all feel a bit the same. Largely shown as montages devoid of specific story function there is no real sense that they are distinct gigs. We don’t get to see the evolution of this band through the chronology of the performances. Even Freddie seems to arrive fully formed as a performer, with only changes of his hairstyle differentiating early shows and late shows.
Quibbles aside, though, Bohemian Rhapsody is a crowd pleaser. Like a veteran touring rock band, it plays the hits and doesn’t bother us with any new stuff. It doesn’t dig particularly deep and it isn’t particularly insightful. This is unashamed hero worship, and for fans of Queen, of which there are many, there is plenty to enjoy. However, one feels it leaves a more profound Freddie Mercury story still to be told.
Review by Duncan McLean
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