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Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

That can't be good for your back, Freddie, ease up

dir: Bryan Singer


I did not expect to enjoy this film as much as I did, but I certainly did. It could have been because it was my birthday and I was in an emotionally fragile state (what with the feeling of impending doom that accompanies every birthday now that I’ve lived to a ‘ripe’ old age), or it could have been because of the prosecco Aperol cocktail I was drinking in the cinema like I was some kind of royal / celebrity / shameful alcoholic. And let me just point out that the most estimable Westgarth cinema has a bar – this was not something I smuggled in my pocket / a thermos /within the bladder of a wine cask.

No, it was professionally made, and quite delightful, and maybe the perfect drink to get me in the mood for a dramatic retelling of the history, or at least part of the history of Queen, that legendary band from the 1970s / 80s. Finding someone to embody the mercurial and one of a kind Freddie Mercury could not have been easy, but at least they had at least one extremely thin and extremely odd looking person who could fit the bill. The only other thing I’ve seen Rami Malek in is Mr Robot, in which he’s superb, of course, but this could not have been an easy performance for him or for anyone else to do or endure.

It’s the teeth, you see. Forced to wear a set of prosthetic teeth that would put a mule to shame, and trying to act and talk and sing could not have been easy for this good chap, but he gives it his darndest. I thought at some points that the false teeth were distracting for him and for the people around him, but just think how Freddie must have felt for having to deal with all those teeth for reals when he was still alive. That couldn’t have been easy, and, when I recall watching a documentary about him about a year ago, he was constantly adjusting his mouth and compensating for his extra teeth anyway, so the actor doing it as well is just Pure Method acting of the kind and level that probably made Daniel Day Lewis punch someone in the face for not giving him the role.

I don’t need to be told that elements of the film aren’t right. I don’t expect biopics of pop / rock stars to be documentaries. I expect documentaries to be fascinating and accurate, and I expect fictional retellings of people’s lives to be entertaining or at least diverting. What Bohemian Rhapsody gave me is an intense appreciation of a) what a keen actor Rami Malek is to put so much work into this portrayal b) what an amazing talented man Freddie was and c) how amazing it is that in their day Queen were the biggest band in the whole freaking world. It is nothing short of bizarre considering the disparate elements that went together to make this band happen.

And the world that accepted them with open arms and wallets! To this day Queen still remain one of the bestselling bands of all time, and for the life of me I still have no idea how or why, except of course when you see Queen and Freddie perform, and here, where you see Rami Malek and the other actors replicate it with such fervency, with such awe-inspiring passion that it really confuses reality with memory.

It’s not as if this flick was going to explain everything to me either. Any biopic is that awkward mesh of people telling the person we know is eventually going to be huge that they’re never going to succeed, along with the incredible super-awkwardness of working song titles or lyrics into the screenplay to make it possible to think (at least for the dumber members of the audience) that something approximating these pantomime scenes actually happened in the lives of some of the people involved.

Which is why we’re all sure, after seeing Walk the Line, that there really was a day where June Carter Cash, walking past a drunken Johnny Cash and Elvis, actually said to them with a disappointed, almost Reese Witherspoonish expression on her face, “Fellas, you ain’t Walking the Line”, as if that’s a thing that actually ever happened in this or any other world.

Or that beloved musicians and singers, when they’re about to perform an important, usually comeback concert, actually pause for a moment to contemplate the length and breadth of their lives in order to really go out there and give it their best shot.

We have been so well programmed by biopics in general and musical biopics especially to want and expect certain things, certain elements which are packaged in such a way that you could practically tick them off a card before you call “Bingo!” at the end once each milestone is achieved.

Bohemian Rhapsody is no different, in fact it follows the template slavishly. The reason why it’s so surprising, and why there’s such a disparity between how audiences felt about the flick and how critics felt about the flick, is that the adherence to the biopic template renders manageable and comprehensible something and someone that would otherwise have eluded us, and we (as in audiences) responded to it with joy, and others saw that as an unforgivable flaw.

Freddie was a lot of things, but at the very least I think anyone could agree that he was incredibly charismatic. If nowhere else other than on stage, Rami captures that something. It’s uncanny, and maybe it’s nothing more impressive than just imitation raised to its highest form. But speaking on behalf of millions of people who never asked me to, that’s what we wanted. I never even knew I really wanted to connect to Freddie or Brian May through the conduit of this flick until it was offered to me, until it actually happened through watching it. It became a joyful transfer of energy, that’s all I can describe it as, and that comes even at the expense of everything else reasonable people might have expected or wanted.

The guy they have playing Brian May: – Un – Fucking – Canny resemblance. It's more than just the wigs; it's more than just the aesthetics and the clothes. I'm not even saying Gwilym Lee's performance as guitar and astrophysics wizard Sir Professor Brian May is even better than Rami's as Freddie, but he's incredible and all of the actors (Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor the drummer, and Joe Mazzello as bassist John Deacon) do a terrific job at least looking like this odd collection of chaps who took over the world for a couple of decades through people's radios and televisions. I loved virtually any scene where the band were together or on stage, or on stage together.

The scene where they're explaining their plans for putting out the song Bohemian Rhapsody as a single to an executive from EMI (played surreptitiously, for whatever reason, by Canadian lunatic Mike Myers) is played entirely for laughs, and was certainly a minor highlight of the flick, and it's very much indicative of the way most of the "history" is dealt with - light touch, not a lot of details, who cares anyway, that kind of attitude. And, look, I'm not sure it was the wrong approach. It's entertaining enough and it's informative enough, and it doesn't bog things down pretending they invented nuclear fission or dental floss or anything. And it was very funny / charming to see how they undercut the Bohemian Rhapsody scene in the end by putting onscreen snippets from all the awful reviews the single got when it was eventually released.

The other scenes fall into four categories - drama, lies, parental approval, and "heck, was Freddie Mercury gay?". There's a lot of Freddie reassuring his friend, fiance and strange pseudo life partner Mary (Lucy Boynton) that she is the love of his life and that he adores her and can't function without her, which is adorable, truly. It's almost baffling how much this relationship means to this version of Freddie, who, possibly, could be, one of the most famous gay performers in all of human history, I dunno. I don't mind that they emphasised this relationship so much, but I did find it a tad odd. The other relationship that they emphasise, and why not, is that between Freddie, or Farrokh as he was initially known, and his Parsi family, especially his eternally disapproving dad (Ace Bhatti).

Freddie's infamous spiral is depicted, yes, in probably the most sanitised form possible, but, really, it's not like they wanted to scare any of the grannies that rolled along to this. And a lot of them did. By Jan 2019 the film has made around $800 million at the box office, and that's a lot of grannies. Look, I acknowledge the legitimate criticism, but I certainly didn't need more nitty or gritty when it came to drug use or ill-advised hookups in the era where the spectre of HIV loomed over all. That's just me - I don't need a lot of hetero actors pretending to have lots of gay sex in order to enjoy a flick.

But it is sad, there's no doubt. It ends up feeling like a horrible betrayal when his health declines, not that it's been fair to the millions of other people it's killed over the years, but it seems even more unfair here, because even when he's a bitch to the other band members or self-centred and cruel, he just seemed like such a lovely person, lovely and incredibly talented and utterly stunning on stage.

I wonder, will there be a way for Freddie to reconcile with the band, with Mary, earn his parent's approval, play the biggest concert in human history and play a role in raising millions for the starving masses of Ethiopia? Will it all come together at the Live Aid concert at Wembley? You bet your sweet arse it will.

And that concert - I can't lie about it or really parse the experience in any other way, I was crying tears of joy watching that bit, and plenty of the audience were too, I don't think I was the only one. And yes, it's true, I can tear up at commercials or film trailers or at the thought of hard work, but the scenes with Freddie and the band are genuinely magical and genuinely moving. I don't care what details were left out, I just thought it's amazing that it exists at all. Most flicks like this with such a watered down yet still chaotic screenplay, and where the director gets fired early on end in disaster, but bringing in Dexter Fletcher to replace the "troubled" Bryan Singer was apparently the perfect thing to do, despite the fact that it's still that jerk Singer who gets the director credit.

It might not be the best flick I saw in 2018, but it was certainly one of the most enjoyable mainstream crowd-pleasing experiences I had the honour and privilege of experiencing in that now seemingly distant and half-forgotten era. None of its success is surprising to me. It's one of those things that we see makes perfect sense only in retrospect, only with time, because before then it's all "that shit will never work". One of the many reasons that time makes fools of us all.

8 times I wonder if this flick would have made Freddie blush out of 10

"Well, that's the kind of songs teenagers can crank up the volume in their car and bang their heads to. Bohemian Rhapsody will never be that song." - an irony so thick you could carve it, or just groan because it's Mike Myers saying it - Bohemian Rhapsody