★ ★ ★
I have very fond memories of Queen. They were one of the biggest bands in the world when I was in my early teens and their brand of pomp rock appealed to my young ears. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the band’s best-known song and masterpiece, isn’t a dance song by any stretch of the imagination but that didn’t stop my classmates and me from giving it a go in the school gym.
The slower introduction and the rockin’ last part are fairly easy to move around the room to, it’s the operatic middle section that would have caused less determined kids to abandon the dance floor. But, in a moment I have never forgotten, my school chums spontaneously came together like a roomful of Maria Callases and Luciano Pavarottis to sing lines like, “Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the fandango?” at the top of their lungs.
That song brought us all together, the romantics, the head bangers, the nerds; everyone stood up and was heard. It was fantastic. Magnifico even. I wish I could say the same about the new film “Bohemian Rhapsody” starring Rami Malek as the late, great Freddie Mercury.
Mercury was not a subtle performer and that spirit has rubbed off on the film, for better but mostly for worse. The performance scenes are fun, over-the-top and enjoyable. It’s when Mercury doesn’t have a microphone in his hand that the movie suffers. “We need to get experimental,” he says to EMI executive Ray Foster (Mike Myers). Too bad screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour,” “The Theory of Everything”) only wrote the line and didn’t take it to heart.
With a script researched by Wikipedia the film zips through the band’s career and singer’s personal life, focussing on the high points—the writing of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Live Aid—while giving the truly dramatic details a boilerplate treatment.
Mercury’s homosexuality is addressed but not deeply explored. He has relationships with two men, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), and we see him visit a fetish club but not until the movie is half over. Before then it spends a great deal of time establishing the bond with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), a woman he called the love of his life.
In the film’s best dramatic scene he comes out of the closet, admitting to her that while he loves her he also thinks he may be bisexual. She disabuses him of the notion, admitting she knows he is gay. It’s a tender scene that sheds light on their connection more than anything that comes before or after.
As for the band, if not for their brightly coloured wardrobe, Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) would barely make an impression. They are there to stand behind Mercury and start the occasional argument so he can whip out a bon mot, smirk and flit away.
Mercury, of course, is the most compelling character. Overcome with father issues and a desire to perform both on stage and off he’s also a man who allows himself to be manipulated by a lover who clearly does not have his best interest in mind. Malek, fake teeth and all, does a good imitation of Mercury. He can strut and swagger but it feels like an impression, a very good one, but one that never goes beyond skin deep. To paraphrase one of Mercury’s most famous lyrics, “it never feels like real life, it feels like fantasy.”
Brian May and Roger Taylor were directly involved with the making of the movie so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the story has an “authorized” feel to it, but it is puzzling how the timeline has been twisted to fit the narrative. The montage of their first tour of America is set to “Fat Bottom Girls,” a tune they wouldn’t write for another four years and the writing of “We Will Rock You” is off by three years.
Those are fan details and easily forgiven narratively. What’s more troubling is the film’s handling of Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis. The movie portrays Mercury telling his band mates, three men he calls “his family,” about his illness a week before Live Aid in July 1985. Jim Hutton, Mercury’s boyfriend at the time of his death, says the singer was diagnosed in late April 1987, years after the events in the film. Moving a song or two through time is one thing. Playing around with the life-and-death details of Mercury’s illness for dramatic effect is quite another.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” ends with a rousing recreation of the band’s legendary twenty-minute Live Aid set. Cut back to four songs ("Bohemian Rhapsody," "Radio Ga Ga," "Hammer to Fall" and "We Are the Champions") it captures their fist-pumping triumph on the Wembley stage. It also sends audiences out of the theatre with some of Queen’s biggest hits ringing in their ears. It’s the Principle of Recency, wherein the thing you experience last is the thing you remember most, like a delicious, sugary dessert at the end of a bland meal. The “Live Aid” impersonation is an effective and memorable way to end a by-the-book movie.