Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody certainly hasn’t had the easiest path to the big screen after numerous behind-the-scenes challenges. Having been in development since 2010, it came close to being made with Sacha Baron Cohen as lead singer Freddie Mercury, before creative differences saw him leave the project.
With both sides saying different things, it’s impossible to be sure exactly what went on; either it was because Cohen wanted to make a ‘harder’ biopic or the producers decided he wasn’t right for Mercury. Whatever happened, fast-forward to 2017 and the movie finally went into production with X-Men‘s Bryan Singer as director and Mr Robot‘s Rami Malek as Mercury.
But even that wasn’t the end of the drama as Singer was later fired and Eddie The Eagle director Dexter Fletcher took over. (Interesting fact: Singer is still credited as the sole director on the movie due to industry rules that only one can be named.) And let’s not even get started (just yet) on the ‘straightwashing’ accusations that were levelled at the film from its first trailer.
So after all that fuss, one question remains: was it all worth it? Well, kind of.
This is a biopic aimed unashamedly at Queen fans and if you’re looking for two hours of ‘weren’t Queen great?’ feels, then you’ll get them in spades. Anyone else looking for some depth and insight into the band, and especially Mercury himself, might want to look elsewhere.
Bookended by Queen’s Live Aid performance in 1985, Bohemian Rhapsody introduces us to Heathrow baggage handler Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek). With some minor family turmoil out of the way, he soon meets the members of Smile, Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and before you know it, Queen are born as Farrokh joins with John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) and becomes Freddie Mercury.
This isn’t a biopic that takes its time in setting up the history of the band as Queen are soon performing ‘Killer Queen’ on Top of the Pops in 1974. While the pacing ensures that the movie never drags, it does come at the detriment of understanding Queen’s – for want of a better word – journey in the music industry.
The events leading up to 1985 are streamlined and could give the impression that everything Queen did was a success. Sure, we get a brief nod to the initial mixed reaction to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but with the unbeatable soundtrack packed with hits like ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘I Want To Break Free’, the focus is very much on celebrating Queen and pretty much ignoring their dodgier moments.
It’s the kind of biopic where you can tell that events might not have exactly panned out the way we’re seeing, and it adds to an overall sanitised feel to the entire movie. Fortunately, the film comes to life any time that Queen take to the stage, thanks to dynamic staging and dedicated performances from all four stars. These musical moments are peppered throughout, but they’re just the taster for the movie’s Live Aid recreation.
In lesser hands, it might have come across as little more than an elaborate Lip Sync Battle performance, but whatever you think of the rest of the movie, you will get chills as the opening bars of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ play out. It’s been shortened a bit, but Queen’s iconic performance has been meticulously recreated, every moment and every beat perfected for maximum emotional impact. Where possible, the movie has used original band recordings and it really shows here.
With the actors playing to a backing track, it feels real and like you’re on stage with them. Hardy, Lee and Mazzello all do a solid job throughout the movie, but there’s no doubt that this is the Rami Malek show – and rightly so. You might take a while to get used to Malek with all of Mercury’s mannerisms, but he soon gets lost in the role and especially so when he’s on stage. It’s a fitting tribute to one of the all-time greatest performers and it’s hard to see anyone else doing it as much justice.
But while Bohemian Rhapsody absolutely soars with the music, it’s not quite as successful when it comes to Mercury’s personal life. Despite what people might have thought from the trailer, the movie does tackle Mercury’s sexuality through his central relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), his long-time friend and former fiancée.
The two are involved in a pivotal scene as his sexuality is openly discussed and we get a sense of the media’s intrusiveness. As the movie heads to Munich in the final third, we are allowed glimpses of Mercury going to gay clubs and having debauched parties, but due to the family-friendly rating, it never really goes into detail. Whether or not you feel it should is a matter of personal opinion, but it’s clear that was never the movie they set out to make.
In real life, Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until 1987, so the movie shifts this forward somewhat, but its handling of it is so bad that you almost wish it hadn’t. There’s a truly excruciating scene set in a hospital corridor bereft of subtlety (“What if I don’t have time?”) so that when you know you should be crying, you might be fighting back an unintentional laugh instead.
This extends to the movie’s treatment of Mercury’s personal manager Paul Prenter (Downton Abbey‘s Allen Leech), who betrayed Mercury and sold his story. Here, Prenter is turned into a sneering pantomime villain, a Iago in the shadows manipulating Mercury against his bandmates. It could well be that everything the movie shows was true to life (well, except the kiss between the two), yet it’s played so over-the-top that it feels unbelievable.
At times, it’s like they couldn’t decide whether the movie was a Queen biopic or a Freddie Mercury biopic, meaning it doesn’t quite fully satisfy as either. You don’t come away feeling like you know more about Queen or how they came up with their biggest hits, while not enough time is devoted to Mercury’s life to make you feel like you know more about him either.
However, this could be a minor issue for a Queen fan going to the cinema just to see the story of their favourite band play out on the big screen. It’s very much an ode to Queen and the boundless talent of Mercury and, to that end, it succeeds.
There are likely to be some purists who will take issue with the movie’s softer edges and the ‘darker’ side of Mercury might well be a movie that could still get made. However, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t that movie and never planned to be. Whether that’s what you wanted or not will determine if you come back for an encore.
Director: Bryan Singer; Starring: Rami Malek, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Joe Mazzello, Lucy Boynton, Mike Myers, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander; Running time: 134 minutes; Certificate: 12A
Bohemian Rhapsody is released in UK cinemas on October 24 and US cinemas on November 2.
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