It was always going to be a crap shoot when the decision was made to make a film about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. After all, how can any screenwriter, any actor or any director begin to capture his mix of flamboyance, charisma, ambition, creative vision, musical talent and even his recklessness in two hours? The film, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, tries and, for the most part, succeeds. Rami Malek (TV’s MR. ROBOT; SHORT TERM 12) puts it all on the line in his portrayal of the unconventional singing legend complete with a bucktoothed overbite prosthetic made by the whimsically named company, Fangs FX. He saves the film from being just another in a long line of dull biopics.
As the story here goes, Mercury, the son of Parsi immigrants from India via Zanzibar, is a design student in London in the early 1970s when he meets guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) after their band’s singer and bass guitarist quits. Freddy quickly wins the guys over and he’s brought on board along with new bass guitarist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello). (In reality, Deacon joined the band a few months later.) The new band is an immediate hit on the university circuit but Mercury has bigger plans. He changes the band’s name to Queen and convinces the others to sell their beat up camper van to pay for some studio time so that they can cut a demo reel. According to the movie, the guys get a recording contract soon after that but, again, that’s not quite accurate. Meanwhile, Mercury begins a relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS; SING STREET) but he has his eyes on guys he meets at truck stops and backstage at their concerts. Ever trying to redefine their musical style and push the boundaries of rock ‘n roll, the guys create the album, A Night At The Opera, which produces such Queen classics as You’re My Best Friend, Love of My Life and their biggest hit, the operatic, tempo-shifting masterpiece, Bohemian Rhapsody. But the boss of their record label doesn’t want “Bo Rhap” released as a single because, at six minutes in length, he feels that no radio station will ever play it. The guys, though, are adamant about having it as their first single off the album and they take it to Capital FM where Mercury’s friend, DJ Kenny Everett, gladly gives it air time. The song’s popularity immediately takes off and their place in rock ‘n roll history is assured. In a wink-wink bit of casting, that record company exec is played by Mike Myers, whose 1992 classic slacker film, WAYNE’S WORLD, solidified Bo Rhap’s place as the must song to sing on road trips.
As the band’s success grows, the media’s fascination with Mercury’s hedonistic, gay lifestyle overshadows the work of the band and its other members. Eventually, Mercury decides to take leave from the group and branch out on a solo career. According to the film, it was at this time that his health begins to decline due to his heavy drinking, drug use and multiple sexual partners. When the opportunity to perform at Live Aid in 1985 comes about, Mercury decides to return to the fold and tell the guys that he has AIDS. (In fact, he wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until a few years later.) The guys realise that they are better together than they are apart and in 1985 Queen gives the performance of a lifetime at the concert of a lifetime.
While the film moves along at a good pace, it doesn’t break any new ground and it follows a very by-the-numbers approach to Mercury’s life with some heavy-handed dialogue at times. It also plays it very safe depicting his lifestyle. Sacha Baron Cohen was originally cast to play Mercury but he dropped out reportedly because the studio didn’t want the story to go to the dark places where he felt it should go. That’s certainly evident in the final product as we never actually see Mercury in bed with a man, and his drug use consists of taking all of one pill and seeing a bunch of white powder sitting on a side table. Yet, Mercury was apparently a regular at gay bars and wild parties on both sides of the Atlantic in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It may be that the studio wanted to maintain a PG-13 rating and, if that’s the case, it was a mistake. The story needed to have more highs and lows. Yes, the film has Queen’s music but it doesn’t have Queen’s energy. Even the film’s closing sequence at Live Aid, which was shot almost second-for-second to the real performance, doesn’t quite live up to the real event. If you don’t believe me, you can see it for yourself on YouTube. One of the comments I made to a colleague as the closing credits rolled was that the volume needed to be cranked up to 11.
Certainly, go see BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. You may like it just because of the music, but as far as biopics or musical films out these days go, it’s not the best. There have been a few documentaries about Mercury and Queen over the years but none has been noteworthy. Hopefully, someone someday will make one that shows us the real Freddie Mercury.
This doesn’t bode well for the upcoming Elton John biopic, ROCKETMAN, which is due out next May.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, November 1st at 8:30 am HK time!
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