Before I delve into my review, I want to start by voicing my disdain about the harsh feedback given to this film. Yes, yes, each to their own and all that jazz. But with a flick like Bohemian Rhapsody, I find myself a little seething about the number of bad reviews this film has had which has led to it being rated a below-par 52% on the (ruthless) Rotten Tomatoes website.
By my own admission, I have allowed critic reviews and even the circus that is awards season to influence the choice of films I go to see nowadays. For the most part, I have been satisfied with a number of these films that have gained strong critical success in recent years like Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and The Shape of Water. But then you also get some unworthy recommendations which are borderline pretentious or difficult to get through like the Oscar-winning Moonlight or Arrival.
Earlier this year, another music-related biopic hit UK cinemas in The Greatest Showman. The film received mixed reviews with some critical about its light-hearted depiction of Hugh Jackman’s character P.T. Barnum. Despite this though, the film became a huge favourite with many audiences especially for its music which has been downloaded non-stop throughout 2018. Mamma Mia (2008) and its sequel also made big bucks and have managed to help ABBA’s music stay relevant to this very day.
Ironically, this whole episode mirrors that of Queen’s early days when a number of critics ridiculed their “News of the World” album which was deemed underwhelming compared to its predecessors. Many fans will also remember the controversial 1977 article from NME that referred to lead singer Freddie Mercury as a prat. Through time, the band’s performances and music would earn strong praise though the media soon turned on Freddie again when he succumbed to a tragic illness that was considered shameful back in the day.
Even the Queen-themed musical We Will Rock You was shot down by critics upon release in 2002 although its box-office success ensured that the hammer didn’t fall straight away. Yes, the sci-fi narrative was completely bonkers but the audiences didn’t come for that. They came for the legendary music that has been universally loved by many since the early 1970s.
Without meaning to sound blunt, I do feel that some critics and forum users have targeted the film’s potential failure owing to the length of time it took to be made as well as the controversy surrounding Bryan Singer’s involvement as director. What Singer has supposedly done away from the set is appalling and if that is the case then he rightfully deserves to be shamed for it. However that doesn’t mean that the film should be punished because of that. After all, some of these critics are the ones who rave about the likes of Chinatown and Annie Hall despite the dodgy reputation of their own directors. They have to remember that this film was always going to be about paying tribute to Freddie and the band’s success rather than be a dark and gritty biopic. Are there some issues with it? Yes but not to the point of earning one or two star ratings!
I could go on about this for an eternity but I’d much rather change course by talking about the actual film itself so here goes….
It’s safe to say that Bohemian Rhapsody has been caught in a landslide of issues over the past decade. From chopping and changing its production team to accusations of straight-washing, the Queen-based biopic has been through the mill. But despite all these problems, the film manages to ‘keep itself alive’ as a loud, foot-stomping celebration about Queen’s rise to fame with plenty for audiences to enjoy.
With original members Brian May and Roger Taylor backing the project, things were beginning to look pear-shaped once director Bryan Singer abruptly left last year. Luckily, Dexter Fletcher stepped in to complete filming and also has the fortunate task of helming the Elton John biopic Rocketman which is released in 2019.
With a welcoming running-time of over 130 minutes, the film covers a lot of the band’s trials and tribulations from their early days as Smile through to falling outs and their crucial reunion before Live Aid. Naturally, the main focus is on legendary frontman Freddie Mercury as his incredible talent is showcased from start to finish with the other band members also getting their chance to shine. Within the opening fifteen minutes, Freddie’s story zips by quickly as he goes from struggling baggage handler to flamboyant rockstar while also dealing with his loving but disapproving family. From then on, the film is all about the band’s rise which moves at a brisk pace and intertwines with a number of montages backed by their iconic tunes.
Focusing on 15 years of Queen’s life and career was never going to please everyone especially when the film took on a more family friendly approach that earned it a 12A rating. It’s clear that some of the grittier issues have been omitted like Fred’s drug addiction and his wild adult-themed parties but at the end of the day, the film has been made to honour and help preserve a man’s legacy rather than pull it apart. However it does provide some powerful moments that will strike a chord with audiences like Freddie’s battle with his sexuality and the fights with the band. Many were quick to judge the film on whether it would ‘straight-wash’ the singer’s sexuality from the release of its first trailer but fortunately, it does show some glimpses of Freddie’s pursuit of men including his future lover Jim Hutton.
An icon such as Freddie Mercury needed a memorable performance and thankfully it comes in the shape of Rami Malek. In a role that is far away from his socially-awkward portrayal of Elliot Alderson in the USA Network series Mr Robot, Malek transforms into Freddie even without having to actually sing. In fact, most of the vocals are provided by a mix of Freddie’s voice and that of Marc Martel who headlines the Queen Extravaganza band. Malek does a terrific job of conveying the many mannerisms of Freddie from the way he walks and talks especially when wearing the prosthetic teeth which is humorously mocked by Brian when he refers to Fred as an angry lizard. The Golden Globe-winning actor also captures the showmanship of the great man’s talent with a lot of credit going to movement coach Polly Bennett for helping him reenact the flamboyant moves on stage especially during the Live Aid sequence. But there is also another side to the performance that reveals the vulnerability that Freddie struggled with during his conflict with sexuality and illness and we can only hope that Malek will be a major contender for Best Actor throughout the upcoming awards season.
Kudos must also be given to the rest of the cast who all provide effective support to the main performance. In the case of the other band members, it helps that Ben Hardy (as Roger Taylor), Joseph Mazzello (as John Deacon) and Gwilym Lee (as Brian May) are expertly cast and take their roles seriously especially when playing their instruments. Lee in particular completely nails the look and voice of Brian and you can tell that there is a strong bond between the four cast members as their characters poke fun at each another, come up with imaginative songs and argue like a real boy band.
There is also some lovely work from Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin, Freddie’s long-term friend and one-time girlfriend who is his one true love and support. Her scenes with Malek are delightful as we experience the happiness of their early relationship that sadly falls apart during a fateful scene that is beautifully backed by Freddie’s performance of “Love of My Life” on television. The bond between the pair has its ups and downs as Freddie’s life spirals out of control but works out well when Live Aid day arrives.
The rest of the solid ensemble also provide admirable support including Aidan Gillen and Tom Hollander as managerial figures John Reid and Jim ‘Miami’ Beach, Ace Bhatti and Meneka Das as Freddie’s concerned parents and Allen Leech as the deceptive and selfish Paul Prenter. A special mention must also go to Mike Myers who adds some light relief as a reluctant EMI executive who disapproves of releasing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on radio. Fans of Wayne’s World will certainly appreciate a nice callback to that film’s classic use of the song!
On the music front, the film certainly proves to be an experience for its audiences from the moment that Freddie performs his first song with the band. You find yourself grinning with delight at key segments from the opening bars of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ being played out to the foot-stomping debut of ‘We Will Rock You’. Various concerts set in England, America and Rio are all recreated in eerily authentic fashion, with no expense spared to front the accurate costumes and stage layouts. This especially applies to the brilliant reenactment of the band’s memorable cross-dressing video of ‘I Want To Break Free’. Every loud beat of the drum and slap of the bass will stir emotions in your nostalgic body and you’ll find it hard not to be moved by their music.
The climax to the film brings us to Queen’s epic performance at Live Aid which is also meticulously recreated in a variety of ways not least by Malek strutting the stage the same way Freddie did. The old Wembley Stadium is resurrected through the magic of visual effects while there are a number of brilliant crowd shots that show the audiences having a great time and clapping along to the band’s music. It’s especially emotional once we get to the “We Are the Champions” sequence which makes you want to sing along in the cinema just like all those lucky people did during that incredible day. It’s this sort of sequence that really deserves the IMAX treatment!
With so much to cram into the film, there are a number of chronological issues that have been highlighted by die-hard fans prior to its release. These can range from “We Will Rock You” being created in the 80s period when Freddie had his mustache to the absence of the Sun City controversy. As already mentioned in the film’s synopsis, some will feel uneasy about the Aids diagnosis being given BEFORE the Live Aid performance though some sources do claim that Freddie knew about his illness prior to the concert. A part of me does wish that the film had an extra half hour so that it could have fixed some of these timeline issues and maybe even focus more on Freddie’s tragic battle or his relationship with Jim.
As someone who loves watching biopics, I have resigned myself to the fact that these sort of films will have artistic license in it which can sometimes take away from the realism of it all. In other biopics, these can range from moments being overplayed for dramatic effect (e.g. Billy Hayes’ escape in Midnight Express, P.L. Travers ‘loving’ Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks) to a character being created by combining a number of real-life individuals (e.g. Hugh Jackman in Eddie the Eagle, Kevin Costner in Hidden Figures). But audiences tend to not care about these flaws which is why a strong number of those features have gone on to do well.
At the end of the day, if you come to watch this film expecting nothing but perfect historical accuracy and adult-themed grittiness, then you may be disappointed. The critics may pick it apart but the fans won’t care as the early box-office figures are currently showing. If you take the film as it is in being fun, uplifting and celebrating the extraordinary talent of Freddie and the wonderful music of Queen, then I’m sure you will all have a blast in the cinema. As the band would memorably sing, they’re having such a good time….they’re having a ball!