Bohemian Rhapsody *****
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Allen Leech, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers Director: Bryan Singer Country: UK I defy anyone to genuinely believe they don’t like any songs by Queen. With a mammoth back catalogue of fist-pumping, foot-stomping, head-banging classics, their music is some of the most recognisable and iconic in the entire history of recorded music. They churned out crowd-pleasers with mass-appeal that sounded excellent on the radio but even better echoing around a stadium. And at their heart, Freddie Mercury was the gregarious frontman, whose meteoric rise was matched only by his tragic fall. He is probably the most famous gay man in all of history and now, for the first time, his story has been immortalised on the silver screen. We meet Mercury (Malek) as a flamboyant teenager named Farrokh Bulsara, living with his parents. Determined that he is not designed for the conventional life his father wants for him, he convinces a local band that he should be their lead singer. Together, Brian May (Lee), Roger Taylor (Hardy), John Deacon (Mazzello) and him form Queen, who are quickly signed by EMI. Their manager (Gillen) and lawyer (Hollander) quickly learn how the group work together, but the label executive (Myers) is completely baffled when presented with the song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a six minute operatic rock ballad with no real chorus. Meanwhile, despite becoming engaged to his long-term girlfriend Mary (Boynton), Freddie finds himself more drawn to men and his personal manager Paul (Leech) takes advantage of that, arranging that his social life revolves around sex, drugs and boys. Seemingly heading in an opposite direction from the rest of his band, Freddie’s life soon begins to unravel around him. After many years of script development and casting difficulties - remember the initial Sacha Baron Cohen casting? - the decision to invite Rami Malek to star as the rock icon seemed a little left-field. Known only for his role in Mr Robot, this would be the Emmy-winning actor’s big screen breakthrough, which seems like quite a risk for a film that was held up so long because of the surviving members of the band’s insistence that the movie “get it right”. However, it’s fairly clear that in casting Malek, they did indeed get it entirely right. It’s as though he managed to slip right into Freddie’s skin and captured the very essence of the late star; at times you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re not watching the man himself. Admittedly the earliest scenes are striking in just how larger than life the character is, but the early flourishes become simply sharpened as they bring into focus his extravagance as a musician. And though the prosthetic overbite does take a little getting used to, the voice, mannerisms and swagger are a carbon-copy of the British icon. Similarly, his on-stage performances capture the very soul of the singer. Culminating in the band’s legendary performance at Live Aid, we see Malek and his co-stars produce alarmingly accurate reproductions of this and other live performances. Where this year’s other great music movie A Star Is Born chose to focus on the intimacy and internalisation of performance, this does the exact opposite, choosing to position the camera often behind the performers to show the sheer scale of the crowds they were performing to and their monumental reaction to Mercury’s unique stage presence. In show-casing the band’s Greatest Hits, this movie does an excellent job in allowing the music to speak - or sing - for itself. While the film does revolve around Freddie, it also gives the band’s other members a good deal of character development when they could easily have faded into the background of his story. However, it is Allan Leech’s Paul Prenter that makes the biggest impression, not only for his positioning as the film’s villain who corrupts and distracts Freddie, but also for his continuing dark presence that plagues the rest of the band. The film has come under criticism for not going far enough in depicting the debauchery of that period of Freddie’s life. We see partying aplenty, but for a film with a 12A certificate, it has certainly toned down the sex, drugs and alcohol. But I would counter that while this is a biopic, it’s not a “rise and fall” piece. This is about the glorification of the achievements of Queen, not a cautionary tale about the dangers of excess. After Freddie reveals his HIV status to the rest of the band he says that he “refuses to be a poster-boy for AIDS”. As such, the film similarly refuses to be a poster-film for the AIDS Crisis, which I think is a boldly considered choice where the gamble has paid off. Of course the film has its sad moments - no film about AIDS during that time period can avoid that - but it is just part of the character-arc, giving rhyme and reason to the journey of Freddie’s later career. We know that the seeds of his demise were sown long before the Live Aid concert, but it’s life-affirming that the film refuses to let us dwell on that, instead focusing on the positivity of Live Aid instead. At this point it was the fire that was lit under him, but it had not yet spread elsewhere. With any biopic of a figure as loved and revered as Freddie Mercury there will always be those disappointed by at least one aspect of the movie. But in naming the film Bohemian Rhapsody, director Singer and writer Jim McCarten have positioned the film to be about the band’s success and not the tragedy that followed. For some this might feel like a half-biopic, but I would argue that the tragedy of AIDS and the way it deprived the world of one of its most colourful rock gods is a whole other story entirely. And if Malek wants to come back and make that movie too, I will be there on opening night for sure.
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