Bohemian Rhapsody

November 2, 2018
Rami Malek carefully replicates Freddie Mercury's armpit hair, in 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

When a film spends eight years in production, from first announcement to opening night, it doesn’t augur well, epecially if that same film changes directors when two-thirds complete. After such a painful birth perhaps we should be pleased Bohemian Rhapsody made it to the cinema at all. Dare we hope that it’s any good?

Bryan Singer acted as director for most of this bio pic of Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury, only to be fired for repeated absences from the set. As the man who gave us no fewer than four X-Men movies and is now dealing with sexual harrassment allegations, Singer’s departure was no great tragedy. Nevertheless the Directors Guild of America’s rules ensure that his name will be the only one to appear on the credits.

Dexter Fletcher, whose orginal concept for the project was rejected, was coaxed back to complete the job anonymously. One early idea never realised had Sacha Baron Cohen playing Freddie – a role that ultmately went to Rami Malek, known for the TV series, Mr. Robot. While Malek is not exactly a dead ringer for the star he puts in a tremendous performance, resisting the temptation to camp it up. Baron Cohen’s presence would have made the movie into a complete parody instead of a semi-parody.

Yet in the words of the song: “Nothing really matters.. Anyone can see.” Bohemian Rhapsody is no masterpiece but it’s an irresistible proposition, even for those of us who were never big Queen fans. Among the super groups of the 1970s-80s there was nothing quite like Queen, whose songs ranged from hard rock anthems to the most whimsical pop ditties. Neither was there another figurehead like Freddie Mercury, who had the vocal range of an opera singer and a private life that kept everybody guessing.

The defining moment for Queen came with the song, Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975, a six-minute-long confection that defied the comfortable hit record formulas and the hostility of the music critics, to become an all-time classic. An operatic spoof with lyrics that would have made Lewis Carroll blush – Mamma Mia, Figaro, Magnifico… Galileo, Galileo! – it surged to the top of the charts and established Queen’s reputation as one of the most innovative acts in the world.

When Freddie died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991 the song was re-released and went to the top of the charts again, its lyrics (It’s too late, my time has come..) taking on a new poignancy.

Freddie Mercury’s real name was Farrokh Bolsara, born in Zanzibar to Indian Parsi parents who would move to England while their son was in his late teens. The story begins, in time-honoured fashion, with rebellious Farrokh defying his straight-laced mum and dad by going out to see bands in pubs every night.

From this point everything proceeds like clockwork: he meets a nice girl called Mary (Lucy Boynton), and takes up with guitarist, Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer, Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), who have just lost their vocalist. Soon they are joined by bass player, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and stardom beckons.

The entire production feels like it was taken from a pattern book for rock ‘n’ roll movies, with many departures from inconvenient reality. Mike Myers plays Ray Foster, a record company executive who fails to see the potential of Bohemian Rhapsody – a comic character fabricated so the movie wouldn’t miss this vital stereotype. Faithful Mary watches as Freddy gets dragged into the world of fame, fortune and sexual opportunism, and discovers a taste for men. Brian and the other members of the band insist they’re “a family”, rather than a group.

The villain in the story – for there has to be a villain – is Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), Freddie’s manager and some-time lover from 1977 to 1986. Prenter, who died in 1991, is portrayed as a schemer who supplied Freddie with drink, drugs and sex partners while driving a wedge between him and the other members of the band.

It’s only afterwards one begins to wonder what’s true and what’s false. Even allowing for his decadent indulgences Freddie escapes from this film looking like a good-hearted fellow led astray by bad company. The grande finale at Wembley Stadium for the Live Aid Concert of 1985, is an anthology of fibs, from Freddie’s prior announcement to the band that he has AIDS, to his tearful reconcilation with his parents, and his sudden acquisition of a new, salt-of-the-earth lover. Everything is squeezed into an absurd time frame that makes the Wembley gig not only the musical highlight of the film, but a moral triumph as well.

Bohemian Rhapsody leans heavily on this concert in which Queen were the acknowledged stars. The film begins and ends at Wembley, making it the culmination of Freddie’s career, if not his entire life. He would survive for another six years and continue to perform with the band, but in this movie, Wembley is the great exclamation mark that brings everything to a conclusion. It’s a shameless manipulation of the audience, intended to paper over all the clichés and distortions encountered along the way – and it works!

You leave the cinema knowing you’ve been had, but still feeling uplifted. It confirms that the only truly bad films are the ones where one couldn’t care less what happens to the characters. The lesson applies to popular music and to popular cinema. We’re completely happy to suspend disbelief, to be exploited and manipulated, just so long as we’re entertained.

Bohemian Rhapsody
Directed by Bryan Singer & Dexter Fletcher
Written by Anthony McCarten & Peter Morgan
Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das
UK/USA, rated M, 134 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 November, 2018