Directed by: Bryan Singer
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Mike Myers, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander
“Is this the real life, or is it just fantasy,” sings Freddie Mercury, opening not only the finest Queen song, but a ballad for the ages, a true Rhapsody that captures the very essence of the profound, ever-changing landscape of music and a pitch-perfect example of how mesmerising the British quartet were. How painful it is then that a biopic of the band that goes as far as to take that song’s title, is far from killer. In fact, its very nature as a stale piece of filmmaking would be enough to make the bold musicians scoff.
Bryan Singer’s (part Dexter Fletcher’s) ode to the band that truly changed the industry forever chronicles their humble beginnings in local pubs and clubs, to their time-stopping performance at Live Aid in 1985. Freddie says in the film, “We’re all legends”. But everyone knows he was the icon of the time, and the film gives a more directed look at his rise and subsequent falls from grace in his rock and roll tenure.
The film tries to assure you of its dedication to her royal majesty with a 20th Century Fox-cum-Queen riff at the start. As expected you’ll hear many of the band’s greatest hits throughout the biopic, often overlaying big transition scenes that show the passing of time. For example, ‘Somebody To Love’ pulls the curtains up as Freddie (played by Rami Malek) trims his moustache and makes his way to the Wembley stage for the famous charity gig. Sure it’s relatively jazzy, but the transitions are jarring, with ham-fisted editing and worst of all, Singer chose the most obvious way to open the picture – “here’s the moment right before the gig, and now we’ll flashback for the rest of the movie”. Nonetheless, this isn’t where the film falters the most.
We then see Malek’s Freddie working at Heathrow, the morning of the night he would fatefully meet his royal family. He’s taking suitcases off the plane and putting them onto a truck, when his superior shouts down, “You missed one, paki”. The use of racist language isn’t problematic in itself, as I’m sure the writing team of Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan know. But when you don’t use it to introduce a wider dialogue around the subject, when you don’t actually use it as a focal point during and simply just use it to rather distastefully remind us of the singer’s circumstances (there is way more than one use of “paki”), that’s an issue.
Here’s the thing; there’s the old maxims, “less is more” and “slow and steady wins the race”. Bohemian Rhapsody is a portrait of ignoring those age-old soundbites, a lavish display of extremist filmmaking. The transitions often remain questionable (apart from one absolutely inspired moment with a cockerel), the use of visual metaphors is amateurishly overegged and characters are written to the point of pantomime. Not that the latter is necessarily always a bad thing; Mike Myers’ music producer is hilariously cynical and Allen Leech’s villainous Paul Prenter is deliciously infuriating. But it all feels incredibly artificial.
Even the visual style, a mixture of a parody-esque look and smoky rooms despite absolutely no smoke add this layer that separates you from the band whose music is part of all of our lives. Thankfully though, Malek, despite being under pressure, is a marvellous Freddie. Not just cosmetically (although he is frighteningly uncanny), but his cocky mannerisms, assured attitude towards his talent and reluctance to take on any sort of label (as a hugely uncomfortable press conference scene illustrates) are true of the greatest showman to ever live himself, and it’s a crying shame that the film as a whole isn’t on par with a performance of such dedicated charisma. The other performances are a mixed bag, with his Queen-cohorts Roger Taylor and John Deacon (played by Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello respectively) either having not much to do or let-down by the writer’s incapability of nuance.
The exception is Gwilym Lee’s Brian May, who really exhibits the sort of compassionate, constantly admiring but utterly bemused relationship you would expect him to have with his lead singer. In portraying the twisted family dynamic the band famously had, the filmmakers and actors mostly succeed, if it weren’t for the haphazard pacing that completely botches the viewer’s sense of their efforts to go big.
A key part of Freddie’s story is his romantic life, and puzzlingly, the film portrays homosexuality like a forbidden fruit, accentuating the orientation to a point where it feels like Freddie is doing something incredibly wrong. But he wasn’t, and one scene with his former partner Mary (played by the terrific Lucy Boynton) really shows this to be painfully true, and if it weren’t for this melancholic moment, the film would have no sense of emotional grip.
The music is, naturally, enough to make anyone go “Ga Ga” and the gig sequences are shot with a poppy vibrancy and love for the band that really paints a rousing picture of the hysteria in the band’s heyday. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography (a frequent collaborator with Singer) though is mostly unspectacular, often framing corny theatrics with that aforementioned artificial aura.
Then comes the show-stopping, stirringly powerful Live Aid sequence, and everything soars. Your heart races and the goosebumps wash across you as Freddie performs the eclectic mix of the heart-aching opening to the titular song, eventually reaching the fist-punching rendition of We Are The Champions. For a feature so scattershot and pitfall-ridden, it feels like a distant memory as you stand among Wembley’s crowd, simply in awe. If only the entire bloated runtime bottled the sensation of the phenomenal closing act.
Malek gives his undivided gusto, and the result is unforgettable. But for a man and a band that were so groundbreaking, so fixated on musical revolution, this is supremely cheap work.