Bohemian Rhapsody arrives after years in gestation. In those years of development it has moved through many iterations: from Sacha Baron Cohen having been attached to play Freddie in an R-rated, warts-and-all version; to earlier story visions which would have seen the band lose their front-man around the halfway mark, with the second half focusing on Queen moving on with new singers. The former didn’t happen, reportedly because the surviving band members baulked at such content: the latter because, presumably, someone had the good sense to point out that a film focusing on post-Mercury Queen would miss the point somewhat. Once in production, the film faced more problems, with Director, Bryan Singer (still the director of record on this work), fired with days to go on principal photography, to be replaced by Dexter Fletcher (credited here as Executive Producer).
The end result is a work that focuses on the right things, but with the gloss of the authorised biography. It then comes close to sabotaging itself entirely with a series of alterations to the timeline that serve to hammer the audience over the head on certain thematic points.
The film starts in 1970 (well, it actually starts on the morning of Live Aid in 1985, but more on narrative structure later). The meat of the story begins with young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek) living with his conservative, Parsi parents in London. Within moments, it seems (and only a matter of hours in the film’s timeline), we see him changing his name to Freddie, the disapproval of his father over his lifestyle, his meeting Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) (the love of his life, as he tells us – and her – many times), our meeting his future band-mates, Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), their then-current band splitting, Freddie introducing himself, taking over as singer, and finding John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) to play bass guitar. At this point, it was hard not to think that, at this pace, the film would be over in about 25 minutes. Whilst the pacing did settle significantly after this; the feeling that we were lightly, and superficially, skipping over events did not.
From here on, the film takes us through Queen’s rise to fame: early performances; recording sessions; Freddie (now taking the name Mercury) learning about and coming to terms with his sexuality; larger gigs to ever bigger audiences, and fights with record executives over the desire not to work to a formula. All of this is well told, with the band selling good chemistry between all four, with Ben Hardy’s Roger Taylor being afforded most of the best lines. The film is funny, engaging, well shot, with a real energy brought to the recreation of the live performances. At this point, the complaints were very minor: the over-emphasising of Queen as a family, to the point that it is difficult to know if that word family has been uttered this much outside of the Fast and Furious franchise; also it was sometimes jarring when actual recordings of Freddie Mercury were being lip-synched by Rami Malek. There is something about an approximation of the voice being performed by the actors in these types of films that lend more authenticity and energy. That said, Freddie Mercury would be a particularly difficult voice to mimic to any great standard.
As the film moves towards the mid-1980s, the band’s relations start to become more fractious, and Freddie finds himself with ever more hangers on, and his private life starts to become a whirl of parties, drinking, drugs and ever changing sexual partners. It is here the involvement of band members, with Roger Taylor and Brian May both listed as producers, appears to have had a seriously detrimental effect on the film’s structure and some of the decisions it makes.
First, Freddie’s diagnosis as HIV+ came, on the testimony of his long-term partner, Jim Hutton, sometime in the spring of 1987. This film moves that diagnosis to just pre-Live Aid, a concert that took place in July 1985. That seems to be to give Live Aid itself extra poignancy, as well as bringing an importance to Freddie returning to Queen’s familial embrace after years of debauchery. This leads, however, to the difficult-to-escape-inference from the film that had Freddie remained in the loving embrace of his “family”, he may never have succumbed; we even see members of the band walking out of Freddie’s parties disapprovingly earlier in the film; as though we are watching a morality play. Whether the film means to say this or not, it strikes an obnoxious tone, where the default band position is the correct one, and all this nasty business could have been avoided. This is exacerbated by the Brian May saying on the eve of Live Aid that the band had not played together for years.
Again, it is clear that is there to add tension and difficulty to the concert performance. Their album The Works was released the previous year: there was no long gap in their discography, and they simply did not spend years apart from each other. Coupled with that moving of Freddie’s diagnosis to just after this fictionalised time-gap, this film falls foul of narrative contrivances that play as simple self-aggrandisement from the surviving members of the group, intentional or not.
As for Live Aid, itself, the film recreates the whole, 20-minute set the band performed that day. This is, mostly, outstanding, with the resemblance of all band members being uncanny. The compositing of the actors into 1985-era Wembley Stadium is much improved from early trailers, and the energy coming from the screen is extremely compelling. Small gripes are that once again the film declines to show restraint in its exulting of the band. It is indeed true that donations reached the £1 million target whilst Queen were on stage: it is less clear whether the phone lines were, as the film portrays, completely silent before the band took to the stage! Couple this with the extremely cheesy reaction shots of members of the crowd crying, and whole pub-fulls of people dancing and singing in unison, and it just adds to the film overreaching. Queen was the highlight of Live Aid, but it simply wasn’t the remember where you were moment the film strains to convince us it was.
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That said, the film is an outstanding recreation of an era, and one that is executed well enough to evoke real warmth and nostalgia. Rami Malek is an intriguing, outstanding choice for Freddie, and he humanises him with a surprisingly internalised performance. His small movements, and little flickers of something going on behind the eyes would, in itself, reward repeat viewings. His build is slighter than Freddie’s too, and this does lend him a fragility in the role, particularly when essaying the loneliness of the man.
It is a fair hypothesis to suggest that without the involvement of May and Taylor, this film could have been a deeper, more nuanced experience. It is also fair to say that without Malek, this film may not have really amounted to anything at all.