Film review: ‘BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

It’s a daunting task for anyone to make a film about Queen and Freddie Mercury. First, they have to contend with a gigantic worldwide fan base’s massive expectations and trepidation about the way the band will be portrayed. Secondly, there was no one like Freddie Mercury before or since and capturing his unique qualities is a monumental challenge for an actor and a director. Its not surprising that the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has had a tumultuous production with actors and directors replaced and deadlines blowing out. Because of its rapturous depiction of Queen’s music, Bohemian Rhapsody should satisfy most rabid fans but many will find the script problematic.

This isn’t a comprehensive, rigorously detailed or even entirely accurate depiction of the band’s career. Instead it tries to capture the spirit and energy of their music and the exotic and wonderfully idiosyncratic character of lead singer and greatest ever rock front-man, Freddie Mercury.

The film takes us from Queen’s beginnings as Farrokh Bulsara later Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) joins with former members of the band Smile, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and later, bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), to form Queen. Vigorous montages chart a familiar ascent to superstardom although this one is flavoured with the wonderfully flamboyant character of Freddie.

As a Parsi born in Zanzibar whose family fled to England to escape the 1964 revolution and as a gay man in the even less enlightened 1970’s, Freddie seemed destined for a turbulent life. The film is largely about Freddie as tragic hero and it takes considerable poetic licence to push that point, compressing time lines and re-ordering events to give him a dramatic trajectory, both personally and professionally, with the iconic Live Aid performance a kind of triumphant Mount Everest summit. At times the narrative of Freddie’s life feels forced but Malek does a superb job creating a fully-formed person and a figure of considerable pathos. He also makes him an intriguing mix of contradictions: an irrepressible, imperious and commanding presence on stage but reserved and self-doubting in private; impeccably polite but occasionally caustic and confrontational.

Much of Bohemian Rhapsody focuses on Freddie’s attempts to come to terms with his sexuality. Some have complained that it sanitises his sex life while others say it paints his homosexuality as abnormal or alien. This seems unfair as the film tries to convey his isolation as an Asian and gay man in a white and largely homophobic world. The depiction of Freddie’s Manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) is uncomfortable, though, as it suggests a virtual predator leading Freddie away from a supposed heterosexual ‘normal’ world into decadent gay underworld. The band apparently had genuine issues with Prenter, particularly a nasty TV interview he did in the 80’s but if feels as if the film is trying to concoct a villain here. There’s much less focus on other band members although they’re reasonably well-rendered with Gwilym Lee particularly convincing as Brian May.

What stands out, though, is the way the film captures the band’s music with magnificently energetic scenes of live performances that will thrill existing fans and probably create new ones. Old-school fans will delight at scenes of the band performing lesser-known tracks like Seven Seas of Rhye and Doing Alright. Given how well the film seems to understand hardcore fans, it’s startling to see anachronisms such as classic tracks being written out of chronological order; the timing of We Will Rock You is particularly jarring.

Inevitably, a film about a band that’s been around for over 40 years is going to leave out a lot of material but the excisions here are slightly alarming. Just about everything in the band members’ careers before Queen and after Live Aid is ignored and there’s no sense of the surrounding music scene including glam or punk. This last issue might be generously excused as conveying the superstar bubble in which they lived.

Although the film mangles some of the band’s history, has a few questionable characterisations and some dodgy dialogue, its ultimate effect is to set audience’s toes tapping, have them scurrying back to their Queen records and have them contemplate the tragic loss of Freddie Mercury.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Music/ biopic.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Bryan Singer.

Release date: 1st Nov 2018.

Running time: 134 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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