Champion of the world

Rating: 3

Bohemian Rhapsody

by Jason Solomons

Less a biopic of magnetically interesting lead singer Freddie Mercury than a costumed romp through Queen’s greatest hits, Bohemian Rhapsody opens just as the band is preparing to go on stage at Live Aid, that momentous 1985 concert at Wembley, where Queen were widely agreed to have stolen the show of all shows.

Then it’s flashback to the luggage carousel at Heathrow airport in 1970. I didn’t know Freddie used to be a baggage handler, and there are few bits of lesser-known biography to tick off as the film skips a familiar, linear path through various crucial moments in the Queen canon – Freddie meeting Brian and Roger at a student union gig, lip syncing to Killer Queen on Top of the Pops, the name change from Farrokh Bulsara to Freddie Mercury, meeting a girl called Mary, coming up with the opening bars of Bohemian Rhapsody while in bed with her under a piano – and so on, and on and on…

Undeniably, some of this is fun, in a dress-up, stage-musical sort of a way. And Rami Malek is a very good Freddie, even managing some character growth that isn’t really present in the flat script. He’s best in the second half, when Freddie grows his moustache and gets more complicated, sexually and creatively.

The trouble is, the rest of the band are pretty dull. This is probably factually correct – as Freddie points out: may is an astrophysicist, Taylor a dentist and John Deacon (‘Deaks’) an electrical engineer whose preferred outfit is a mark and Sparks tank top – and they continually try to bring Freddie’s flamboyance down to their level, tutting as they leave his parties for an early night.

What will disappoint many modern fans is that the film doesn’t really deal with one of the great gay stories of all time. Remember the general shock when Mercury died of AIDS in 1991? I mean, it wasn’t like he was hiding it, was he? Surely that’s the most interesting aspect of the man who sang Killer Queen at the start of his career and The Great Pretender near the end. I’d have liked to see more of a struggle within Freddie himself, rather than the priggish eye-rolling we get from Deacon, May and Taylor, which strikes a moralising tone that renders our leading man miserable, isolated and in the wrong. So much so that he has to make groveling apologies to his bandmates.

While the band just about gets away with the hair and make-up department’s best efforts, it’s only Freddie we want to look at. and, thankfully, Malek is terrific, lovable, funny (as far as the script allows) and very cute in all his little outfits – like an Action Man doll.

As for the band, there are the inevitable eureka moments designed to make us feel we’re right there for the creation of pop masterpieces. Bohemian Rhapsody, worked on in a farmhouse and featuring dozens of takes of Roger Taylor singing ‘Galileo’ as high as he can, gets the lion’s share of the behind-the-scenes back story, leading up to a wooden cameo from Mike Myers as the record company boss turning down a six-minute track full of operatic nonsense.

The movie settles into a familiar rhythm of the band turning little tiffs into riffs. As Deacon thrums the very first airing of the bass line of Another One Bites the Dust, they all stop bickering and say, ‘Actually, Deaks, that’s not bad…’ Another studio moment has Brian may inventing the hand claps and stomps for We Will Rock You, a little over-eager to show how they all made their contributions to the Queen brand.

But due to Malek's affecting performance, the film is much better when Freddie’s alone, dealing with his loneliness and tortured by his sexuality. It might come across as a sanitised family musical at times, but there’s enough to suggest sex and drugs and rent boys, as well as yearning for a conventional heterosexual relationship, with mary (Lucy Boynton) whom he ‘married’.

And then there’s the climax, practically a real-time step-for-step re-creation of the Live Aid performance, in which Malek does one of the all- time impersonation acts, sealing the moment when the actor has overtaken the star he’s playing.

I tapped my feet, I sang along to lyrics I’d forgotten I knew. I used to do a pretty good Freddie impression myself, so I was reluctant to be impressed. But Malek succeeds in the kind of magic you can only get in the movies, that of blurring the lines between myth, reality and memory. And, right at the last, this curious costumed impersonation of film finally finds somebody to love. 

 

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