Aida Vucic | 08/10/2018
One long brush stroke through the purported highs and lows of Freddie Mercury’s life, in the lead up to an epic finale at Live Aid.
The film introduces us to Farrokh Bulsara (Freddie Mercury, played by Rami Malek); a baggage handler of Parsi descendant from Zanzibar. Don’t expect to learn too much more about his background or his family, because the film rapidly jumps into Freddie meeting his fabled band members, Brian May, Roger Taylor and shortly thereafter John Deacon, and forming what we now know to be Queen. They are a group of misfits creating and performing music for their audience of misfits, exploring alternative music and refusing to bow to any record producer’s whims. The film lingers on the band creating some of their greatest hits including, Bohemian Rhapsody, before flying through a series of tours with titles smeared across the screen. The band hits a roadblock when Freddie starts his solo career, furthering a downward spiral into the abyss of substance abuse and (seemingly from this biopic) an abusive relationship. Bohemian Rhapsody then reunites Freddie with his fellow band members years later for the Live Aid concert, with his tail between his legs, grovelling for their forgiveness, just before he performs the greatest concert of all time.
For a film that proclaims to be a biopic of one of the most flamboyant and controversial musicians, the film is anything but controversial. It is an excruciatingly safe and staid biopic, hitting all of the notes one would expect. A more confident filmmaker may have explored Mercury’s sexuality rather than mudding it with his drug and alcohol addiction, as though they were one and the same. But that’s to be expected from a film which was co-produced by band members May and Taylor, who clearly had vested interest in the film. Taking the opportunity to ensure that audiences know that it was Taylor who wrote “We Will Rock You” or John Deacon who wrote “Another One Bites the Dust” feels preachy and whiny, and not at all in keeping with a biopic that should be a rollicking ride through the excesses of a band of such huge fame.
Director Bryan Singer (who was replaced by Dexter Fletcher late in the piece, due to significant behavioural issues on the part of Singer) actively avoids any chance of portraying any of the remaining band members in a negative light or stepping on anyone’s toes. Instead, what he gives us is an auto-tuned cover of a Queen song; a bland piece of cinema that won’t offend, but has none of the highs, lows or rough edges that make a film truly great.
Bohemian Rhapsody actively avoids many of the potential juicy details of Freddie’s life. We have heard about the the infamous Sacha Baron Cohen adaptation, which was scuttled after the band members felt it was too raucous and ‘dishonoured Freddie’s memory’. But for a man as flamboyant and joyously extravagant as Mercury, one could imagine that is exactly what he would have wanted. Instead, we get almost nothing about his life as a gay man. We get very little of his past, of his drivers for being a performer or his relationships with family. We see little of the toll the road may take on him, on the effects of his illness later in his life.
It isn’t a bad choice to bookend the film with Live Aid. Undoubtedly it is one of the defining moments of Queen’s existence, and Mercury’s career. It’s the greatest live performance of all time. And without a doubt, it is at the top of the list of things that Bohemian Rhapsody does well. It is an extended set piece that will have you stomping your feet, marvelling at the all out performance from Malik and appreciating the little behind the scenes moments as people realise what a tremendous set they are witnessing.
However, in order to allow this to be a bookending set piece, Bohemian Rhapsody plays fast and loose with the truth that at the best of times feels forced and cliche, and at the worst is downright insulting.
If you were to believe Bohemian Rhapsody, every argument the band ever had was both started by Mercury, and ended in the brain spark for one of their great hits. You’d also then have to believe that Mercury broke the band up to go solo, breaking the hearts of the other members (in truth, drummer Taylor had released 2 solo albums before Mercury did), and that Mercury only returned to the band for Live Aid (we know that Queen had been touring together for the 18 months leading up to Live Aid). You’d also have to believe, most egregiously, that Mercury was spurred to greater heights than ever before in his Live Aid performance because he and the band had just found out he had AIDS, and was likely dying. This despite the fact that Mercury didn’t discover this until 2 years after Live Aid. That one probably stings the most.
This isn’t necessarily all bad. All movies need to tailor the truth, and particularly in biopics where the behind closed doors conversations need to be effectively made up to get a sense of the person behind the public persona. But here, Singer (and later Fletcher) butcher the true story of Queen in service of delivering something so mediocre, cliche and expected that one simply cannot fathom the reason for doing so. It is the destruction of a good story in a seemingly deliberate attempt to transform a piece of art into paint by numbers consumerism.
That being said, there is a lot to love about Bohemian Rhapsody, and most of that is Rami Malek. Malek absolutely and intensely personifies Freddie Mercury. There is no other way to describe it; he simply becomes the man. Whether he is strutting around on stage, looking up at his wife’s window or crooning away in a recording studio, Malek has the mannerisms, the vocal patterns and the soul of the man ingrained in every fibre of his being.
It really is a true pleasure to watch, and at no point more so than when he takes the stage for Live Aid. Bedecked in the now famous singlet and jeans, he pours buckets and buckets of heart into that performance, and is rewarded for it by us as an audience, who can only stare gobsmacked at Malek’s presence.
From the supporting cast, there are plenty of ups and downs; Aiden Gillen is good as John Reid, and Lucy Boynton is fantastic as Mary Austin, Mercury’s wife, but Mike Myers as a mish-mash of EMI record executives is a misstep, and Allen Leech never really manages to make us sympathise with his manipulative Paul Prenter.
In the end, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t a bad film. It is just a film that doesn’t just not live up to expectations; it doesn’t surpass them in a shattering, glorious way. And for a biopic of a man as fantastical, extravagant and undeniably ambitious as Freddie Mercury, perhaps mediocrity is the greatest crime of all.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a disappointment in nearly every aspect outside of Rami Malek’s incredible performance and the fist-pumping soundtrack.