There are often moments in the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody where it feels like its trying to chronicle more than its fascinating protagonist.
The life of Mercury is a fascinating one. Mercury’s journey from Farrokh Bulsara – born in Africa to two Zororastrian refugees from India, before being a shy music-obsessed luggage worker at Heathrow, and later a man who was renowned as largely introverted but capable of holding court as both a superstar on stage with one of the world’s biggest bands, and in thriving bacchanalian parties across the world.
Mercury is a man who certainly lived a fascinating life. Certainly, its one that has invited cinematic depiction, even if the project has been a long-runner. The film that would eventually become Bohemian Rhapsody was first suggested in 2010, and at various points had Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Wishaw as leads, as well as numerous directors.
Even getting the cast and crew sorted didn’t stop trouble. Director Bryan Singer failed to make it through the whole shoot amid all manner of rumours about his conduct both making this film and in his personal life, with Dexter Fletcher taking the project over the line.
For what eventually came out, the film’s “more than just Mercury” feeling is that the film feels like it as much about Queen as a whole. The presence of Brian May and Roger Taylor as producers and reportedly involved in the script may well have something to do with it.
The film’s bookends take the form of Queen’s famed Live Aid performances at Wembley in 1985. Widely regarded as one of the great rock performances, this is the pinnacle of the movie, and as has been noted, the entire recreation of the gig on a full-scale model of the stage was filmed first.
For cinematic purposes, a lot of the Queen life-story is shortened. It begins with Mercury (Remi Malek) becoming a fan of UK rock band Smile, and volunteering his services as a singer and songwriter to the band’s guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) when Smile’s vocalist Tim Staffell (Jack Roth) chooses to bail for a rival project.
The trio then rope in John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) to take over Staffell’s base parts, change name to Queen, and work their way through the club circuit before beginning to rise in stature.
The band then begin to go big in sales through the single Killer Queen, before terrifying label rep Ray Foster (Mike Myers) by vowing to go experimental. Sure enough, along comes the six minute epic Bohemian Rhapsody – piano ballad, full-on crying guitar parts, multi-layered operatic choirs, Wayne’s World-ready rock solo, the lot – and a knowing wink about how nobody will hear it.
Around this time, Mercury begins to question his sexuality, and whether he is truly comfortable in a heterosexual relationship with his fiancée Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Having been tempted by male truckers on a US tour and exchanging kisses with band manager Jim Beach (Tom Hollander), he soon becomes seduced by the possibility open by exploring this and breaking off his engagement.
The band then becomes a chronicling of the hits arriving in chronological order – We Will Rock You here, Another One Bits The Dust there, a little sprinkling of Under Pressure there too – while Mercury becomes distant from the band and embraces his new life in as much a manner that a film with a 12A certificate will allow.
There are pleasant enough performances. The 3 members of Queen have their moments, and as a group, they have the dynamic with the more laid back Deacon playing off well against May and Taylor’s more confrontational manners. But Malek’s Mercury is the notional focus, and sells that he is fully into the role.
The live performances even outside of the big Live Aid show-stopper are very well done. The film well chronicles Queen’s rise from clubs to theatres, then arenas, and then the big league of stadium superstardom.
There’s also a reasonable enough focus on the creative process, which was as much a sticking problem for Queen as the original songwriter was always given 100% credit for their tracks until the last few albums. But this process is also part of where the film really feels like it doesn’t get to the heart of Mercury.
It may well be that the age certificate holds back what is for the most part of a competently done film from truly exploring something more than what it does, but it feels like the film is only able to really scratches the surface of what made Mercury tick rather than fully exploring how he changed the longer Queen stayed in the limelight, right up to the ultimate tragic conclusion.
Sure, some of that could be construed as gratuitous – indeed, a Channel 5 docudrama from 2016 was criticised for this course of action. But the film is a mixed bag with that, and it feels quite wedded to its biopic conventions of a band becoming successful, hitting difficulties, breaking up, and then re-forming to greater heights that it fails to truly examine the subject’s complexities.
It has widely been noted that Bohemian Rhapsody is a critic-proof film, able to overcome middling to bad reviews by the strength of the fact it is paying homage to bona fide superstar who sang on some of rock’s great songs. But for all the discussion on this subject, Bohemian Rhapsody is a decent enough film on its own merits.
There’s good performances, a good use of the jukebox soundtrack, and the Live Aid showpiece is a very well done top to proceedings. But it does equally feel held back when it could strive for something more, which may betray the age certificate, or the extra hands on the tiller, or the backstage politics. Whatever the ultimate cause is, its a good film that sometimes feels like it can underplay its extraordinary subject matter.