Consistently marred by behind the scenes drama and sky-high expectations, Bohemian Rhapsody is finally ready to be seen by Queen superfans and curious moviegoers alike. Unfortunately, despite great work from a lot of people, the film never feels daring or honest enough to please either.
The film tells snippets of the story of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek) life, from his youth in Middlesex as a Parsi immigrant to his days in music and beyond. We see him meet Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and form the band, write and release celebrated hit songs such as the titular Bohemian Rhapsody, and eventually be subsumed by fame and diagnosed with AIDS in the late-80s.
You’ve seen the pictures and flicked through the trailer – you don’t need anyone to tell you that Rami Malek is a dead ringer for Mercury and has managed, against expectations, to capture some of the legendary stage presence that the star was famous for. He is absolutely brilliant, and there’s never a moment you don’t believe that Mercury’s voice isn’t truly coming out of his body. It’s a nifty magic trick, and it works.
The film has not had the easiest journey to the screen even if you ignore the various casting changes. Brian Singer was fired as director after alleged unprofessional behaviour on set and separate accusations of sexual assault came to light, but DGA rules have meant that his name remains despite the work of replacement Dexter Fletcher. This provides a legitimate argument for boycotting Bohemian Rhapsody, which is a stance you sense the film wants to get ahead of.
But more than anything, this feels like a film made by Queen, so reticent is it of the man at its core. Sacha Baron Cohen famously departed the project several years ago because his vision clashed with the band’s, and several actors were sought before Malek landed the gig.
All of the ‘less mainstream’ parts of Mercury’s life might be here in one way or another, in the background or over in the corner, but they’re so surface level that they’re barely addressed. One of the film’s best sequences is the one that tackles Mercury’s relationship with the press, who were so eager to pry into a life that would inevitably be twisted and distorted by a public not ready to hear it.
The film’s main problem arises later with how infantilised Mercury becomes. Nothing is his fault, and his bad actions are simply the result of him falling in with the wrong people. He might let fame go to his head, but more than anything he’s a sad, lonely puppet of evil record execs and assistants (Allen Leech, practically twirling his moustache and cackling). That may be the perspective of his friends, who are sadly the only ones here to offer their account, but it sells the man short.
The straight-washing allegations, however, seem even stickier after seeing the film. It was always going to be a difficult line to tread when depicting the complicated sexuality of a complicated real-life person, because to some the prioritisation of Mercury’s relationship with ex-fiance and life-long friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) will smack of the film’s writers not wanting to focus too much on the singer’s relationships with men. Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) is introduced later, but he’s a footnote.
In reality, Mercury was quoted many times as saying that Mary was the most important person in his life, and it’s their odd, tender relationship that works best throughout the film.
The smartest decision of all, and the thing that saves the film in the end, is the choice to finish with Live Aid. Ending the film with Mercury’s illness and death would have felt cheap and unnecessary, misery porn for the few people who don’t know how the star’s life ultimately panned out. Live Aid is a joyous sequence which runs and runs for almost the entire 20-minutes (the whole set was filmed, but cut slightly for the theatrical release) and is as much a reason to watch the film in cinemas as any.
In the end, Bohemian Rhapsody is a much too-precious advertisement for Queen (who are still touring) that just happens to have a spectacular performance at its centre. Perhaps a happy accident, but no surprise for those familiar with the actor’s work on Mr Robot, it’s Malek that’ll stick in the mind when walking out of the film. That, and the impulse to go stream Queen’s greatest hits.
Bohemian Rhapsody is in UK cinemas from October 24th.