Many moons ago, I recall hearing of a Freddie Mercury biopic entering production. It was set to start Sacha Baron Cohen, and this news was very exciting to me, I am, like many people, a huge Queen fan, I own all of their studio output and have seen the remaining members perform twice with new front-man Adam Lambert. Plus, Baron Cohen is a decent likeness of Freddie Mercury and a known singer so all the pieces seemed to fit perfectly.
But, it wasn’t to be, the film spent almost a decade in various stages of development, Cohen left, reportedly after a fall-out with Queen over the films content, Ben Whishaw was penciled-in as a replacement, then he left too.
Even when filming eventually began, with new lead Rami Malek, the film suffered with production problems. Director Bryan Singer became unreliable, arriving late to set or not arriving at all, leading to his eventual dismissal from the film with it so close to completion (a reported 80% of the film was already finished) so Dexter Fletcher was brought in to finish the product, and finish it he did, bringing the films storied and tumultuous development to a close, despite this, Fletcher does not receive a credit on the film, due to how close it was to completion, a decision handed down by the Directors Guild of America, to which all Hollywood films must comply with.
So, given the roller-coaster ride of its development, is Bohemian Rhapsody an ugly duckling? Or does it defy its rocky start to life, and emerge at the other side a beautiful swan?
Bohemian Rhapsody charts the story of the British band, Queen, and more specifically legendary front-man Freddie Mercury, from their humble roots in London pubs, to the monstrous success of their Live Aid performance. All the while dealing with unsure record executives, the pressures of stardom, and Mercury’s ever-growing ego.
After viewing early trailers for the film, I started to become worried that this film may re-write some of Mercury’s history to make him into something he wasn’t. My fear being that the producers, and the band themselves, were scared of scarring Mercury’s reputation and acknowledging his flaws. Happily, my fears were unjustified.
Bohemian Rhapsody took me completely by surprise upon watching. It was one of those pleasant surprises that come along once in a while, being that it took a subject a lot of people care deeply about and handled it with such care and dignity, that I felt I had no choice but to smile by the end credits.
Mercury’s story is not one with a happy end, this is something we already know. His AIDS-related death in 1991 being one of the world’s most high-profile AIDS-related deaths, and while this is acknowledged as the case, it is tactfully addressed without managing to mar the conclusion with inevitability.
The first thing I think should be singled out for praise is the performances. Led by the supremely talented Rami Malek, the film is one that is an all-round success from an acting standpoint. The aforementioned Malek shines as the flawed genius that was Freddie Mercury, wringing each drop of emotion from the heavier scenes, and putting his all into what seems like a complete transformation into Freddie. He is not content with playing Freddie as just the flamboyant front-man, but all aspects of his personality, somehow bringing vulnerability to such an utterly bombastic personality.
There are also great turns in the film from: Lucy Boynton, who plays Freddie’s best friend Mary Austin, a rarely discussed but utterly complex character, who had such a devotion to Freddie from an early age, who stuck by him regardless of his sexuality and nursed him into his dying days, Gwilym Lee, who portrays Brian May, Queen’s guitarist. Lee does not look like an actor portraying Brian May, he looks like Brian May just stepped out of a time machine, the likeness is uncanny and Allen Leech, who as Paul Prenter, makes your teeth itch from the moment you see him, and his effect on Freddie’s life, while devastating, is entirely predictable, yet played so well by Prenter, who Makes hating Paul such an easy task.
From a technical standpoint, it is a visual marvel, especially the final section, a lovingly re-created version of their Live Aid performance, complete with absurdly detailed recreation of the set from the day, its audio mixing and cinematography makes you feel like you are right there in the front row, instead of being sat in a cinema watching, it’s an utterly immersive experience and worth the price of admission alone.
It’s by no means a perfect film, and I have complaints. The rest of Queen seem to be pushed aside to showcase the day-to-day dramas of Freddie Mercury, which from a pacing and narrative standpoint, is probably a good thing, but the little snap-shots of character we get from them show a dynamic rarely seen, in a way, some of the members of Queen could not be more diametrically opposed, and when this is show it’s fascinating. I also feel we don’t get to see nearly enough of Freddie’s relationship with Jim Hutton, the partner he spent the last years of his life with, granted this sets up a very well-executed payoff towards the end, but I feel their relationship was worth exploring in more detail.
In the long-run though, these are but minor quibbles in what is a hugely enjoyable slice of cinema, something that managed to take a figure as well-known as Freddie Mercury, and show us more of his life than what we saw on stage. It is unlikely to trouble the Best Picture category at any major award ceremonies, but I would be very disappointed if Malek were not at least nominated, as his performance is one of this year’s most accomplished and may turn out to be a star-making performance. There are also moments technically that rival anything we’ve seen this year, the sets, audio mixing and costumes being the most notable. It just goes to show the lengths of the films achievements when I mention sound mixing as something that enhances the experience, as this is something usually unacknowledged by most commentators.
In conclusion, this is a biopic with something for everyone, Queen fans will love seeing the inside story and hearing the band’s music on the big screen, whereas non-fans will be drawn in by the easily accessible narrative and enjoyable performances. A highly recommended experience, for both a hardened fan and newcomer.