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The road to ‘Rhapsody
It’s been almost a decade since the idea of making a movie about Queen’s rise to fame was mentioned by guitarist Brian May. Initially Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame was in discussions with May to play Freddie Mercury. Talks fell down early on with Cohen criticising May of wanting to protect the brand rather than release a warts and all biopic. After seeing the final product, Borat might have had a point.
Dexter Fletcher, of Eddie the Eagle Fame, was signed to direct. He quit in 2014 after falling out with producer Graham King and they hired Bryan Singer, who was responsible for the X-Men movies and The Usual Suspects. Three weeks before they were to wrap filming Singer left the production to quote “return to the U.S to deal with pressing health matters concerning one of my parents”. The studio decided not to wait for him to come back and re-hired Dexter Fletcher to finish the movie. In spite of this, Bryan Singer still receives the sole credit as director.
Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor are the custodians of Queen’s legacy, and by default the memory of Freddie Mercury. They have said “they get one shot to make this movie, and if they don’t do it, someone else will do it badly”.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a condensed, retelling of the band’s history, painted with very broad strokes heavily influenced by May and Taylor’s point of view. The embellishments made in the name of storytelling have polarised fans.
While I don’t really think that you can spoil something based on actual events. You have been warned, there’s minor spoilers from here on in.
The story charts Queen’s rise to fame, from formation to the iconic Live-Aid performance in 1985. It’s a lot to cram into the two and a bit hour run time (if you haven’t seen the actual footage from Live Aid concert, make sure you do before you see the film).
I’m sure Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon are interesting people in their own right but can anyone’s star burn brighter than Freddie Mercury’s? Of course not!!!
The film focuses on Freddie. You get to see how he met the band, the dynamic he added, the influences in his life, the band’s meteoric rise to fame, coming to terms with his sexuality, how he strayed into solo territory and his triumphant return at Live-Aid.
Yeah, you do get a watered down, abridged version of the bands history—told on a ‘need to know basis’—where the truth is secondary to a cool story. This is where most of the criticism comes from. Minor gripes about fictitious record label owners inserted for comic relief, contention around his solo career—when May and Taylor also had solo projects—and a major embellishment that has upset a lot of people regarding Freddie’s AIDS diagnosis.
The film shows Mercury formally diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. He reveals this to the band prior to their performance at Live Aid, which adds incredible weight to the final act of the movie. History tells us that Freddie did not receive that diagnosis until 1987. I can appreciate why that may not sit well with people but I don’t think this is intended to bring any disrespect.
Where this movie really shines is with the music and the recreation of some iconic moments in the bands career. Having May and Taylor on board as creative consultants and music directors ensures that the music sits atop everything else, almost.
Unlike the plot, the attention to detail with costumes and the stage sets are spot on and the cast are all dead ringers for their real life counterparts. Gwilym Lee practically is Brian May, Ben Hardy is great as Roger Taylor and Joseph Mazzello moves through all the iterations of John Deacon’s hairstyles seamlessly. Lucy Boynton is a hit as Freddie’s first love, Mary Austen.
The front man who carries the weight of this entire film on his shoulders however, is Rami Malek with his transcendent portrayal of Freddie. His performance is so powerful, from early scenes where he’s writing Bohemian Rhapsody and moved to tears by what he has created to the final, perfect recreation of the Live-Aid performance. He successfully channels the essence of Freddie and captures his ability to blow audiences away.
They’re saying it’s just another cliché’d biopic, and while Queen never followed a formula musically, I would argue that the rock and roll lifestyle they lived absolutely was a cliché.
I nit-picked Bohemian Rhapsody, watching through jaded, cynical eyes but there was a point at the end of the film where I had a moment. In that moment, through the power of Malek’s performance. I felt the impact of what a truly unique, vulnerable and incredibly prolific talent Freddy Mercury was. I worked out I was actually enjoying this movie and that I missed his music much more than I knew.
I don’t think Bohemian Rhapsody tries to do anything more than build on the myth and celebrate Queen’s incredible music. In the absence of hearing Freddie’s side of the story I’ll settle for that over a tell-all, he said, she said biography any day.