Queen is one of the greatest rock bands of all time with the legendary lead singer, Freddie Mercury, whose life was tragically cut short due to complications from AIDS in the early 90s. Though they have never really disappeared from our consciousness, the band has had a resurgence of sorts over the past few years with the addition of singer Adam Lambert taking on lead singer duties and touring to sell-out crowds around the world with remaining active band members: guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor. With Queen fever at a new high, it is no surprise that we have a biopic on Mercury out in cinemas. What is surprising is that it has taken this long for the story to come to fruition.
Bohemian Rhapsody follows the highs and lows of Queen, focusing on Mercury, from their formative years to their killer performance at Live Aid in 1985. We are given insight into Mercury’s life as a baggage handler at London’s Heathrow airport, May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon’s original band, Smile, the formation of Queen, the fights with the establishment to produce the albums they wanted to create, through to the manipulations of Mercury’s manager Paul Prenter that ultimately causes a rift in the Queen family and their triumphant return at Live Aid.
Originally a vehicle for Sacha Baron Cohen almost a decade ago, Mr Robot star Rami Malek was cast as Mercury early last year. Joining him are Gwilym Lee as May, Ben Hardy as Taylor and Joseph Mazzello as Deacon. The four leads are wonderfully cast, with Malek superb as Mercury. Malek is able to capture the flamboyant spirit and on stage electricity of Mercury without delving into caricature or impersonation. He puts his own spin on the man that has you both falling in love with him and his talent, but wanting to scream at him for his naivete and some of the absolutely stupid decisions he makes. None more so than putting his trust completely in his manager Prenter (played concerning well by Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech – this is definitely no Tom Branson). There has been much said on the liberties taken with the depiction of this relationship in the film, and it certainly does not reflect well on Mercury and likely gives more importance to Prenter than he maybe warrants, especially since this storyline really dominates the latter part of the film. While both Malek and Leech are good in their scenes together, it does slow down the film and a lot is really skimmed over.
The film’s main love story is that between Mercury and his early girlfriend and lifelong friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), but again the film doe not really know what to do with her once their romantic relationship ends following Mercury’s desire to explore his bisexuality. Mary is randomly thrown into scenes throughout the rest of the film, mainly to remind us that she was always around. While Boynton does well with what she is given, Mary does not really serve any purpose until her visit to Mercury while he’s recording his solo album in Munich.
Probably the biggest disappointment is the script. Penned by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) it is choppy, uneven, and often times so cringe worthy in its cheesiness. This has then been translated to the flow of the film, though that could be in part due to firing of director Bryan Singer with two weeks left of principal photography and the hiring of Dexter Fletcher to finish the film. There are a number of historic inaccuracies – the biggest being Mercury revealing to the band days before Live Aid that he has AIDS, a diagnosis that didn’t occur for another two years. Given that they do not deal at all with his illness, stopping the action at the 1985 Live Aid performance and using title cards to state the fate of each of the leads, the reveal during rehearsals is pure emotional manipulation, which falls decidedly flat due to the awful dialogue in the scene. Plus the Live Aid performance was so iconic on its own, you didn’t need this fictitious extra layer added to it.
And that is where this film truly stands out – the musical performances and luckily for the film, there are plenty of them. Running through a good portion of Queen’s classic catalogue, the behind the scenes look at the recording studio and the live gigs is what saves this film and why you need to see it in a cinema with other Queen fans. I got goosebumps the first time “We Will Rock You” came together in the studio, and the Live Aid performance… chills throughout the entire sequence. You need the sound, the big screen and the concert experience of seeing it with fellow fans that you can only get in a cinema. Without this I do not think it would stand well on its own.
Ultimately this film is about family – both those you are born into and those you create for yourself. This is continually referred to throughout the film, almost to the point of frustration, and this is to its detriment. The power of the word “family” would have be so much greater in the scenes where Mercury announces his solo deal and subsequent crawling back to the band, if it hadn’t been bandied about so much earlier. However, it is the band family that is the true love story of the film and it is these scenes that work the best, though the rest of the band are very under utilised throughout the film and not fully developed characters.
While Malek is fantastic and the film is enjoyable, Bohemian Rhapsody does not live up to its potential. It will also no doubt suffer further being up against A Star Is Born, which just hits all the right notes. However, if you want to see this movie, it really needs to be seen in the cinema and Malek’s work really needs to be experienced and appreciated.