THIS MOVIE IS as delightful and entertaining as it is disingenuous. Its title, Bohemian Rhapsody would suggest that it’s more than a movie about a band, more an exploration of a musical phenomenon. It’s really a bio-pic of Freddy Mercury as a troubled genius.
The joy of the movie is its immersion of the audience in the heart-throbbing excitement of that seemingly endless canon of Queen’s hits (And director Bill Pohlad’s recreation of the adrenaline and thrill of live performance is as good as Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born). Mercury’s multi-octave voice (due to an excess of teeth he claimed) and Brian May’s stunning guitar riffs have probably provided the soundtrack of everyone between 45 and 70. Probably in the same way that ABBA did for everyone a generation earlier…and Bohemian Rhapsody will no doubt pump up record sales (OK…downloads) for the group as that other Dancing Queen has done for ABBA.
This is of course not to imply that Brian May had that in mind when he produced this airbrushed version of the band…right down to the last group hug of an HIV infected Freddy (at a time when the public thought it was contagious through mere touch).
That said, the choice of Rami Malek (Mr.Robot) to portray Freddy was a brilliant one. Malek holds the movie together, as Mercury did with Queen, with extraordinary charisma. Here’s a moving tale of an endearing buck toothed, gay, self-centered, Asian man, looking for love in all the wrong places and finding salvation in performance.
The movie follows Freddy’s career from the time when he’s still a baggage handler at Heathrow. His extraordinary voice is the asset that enables him to sell himself to a college band on the brink of collapse. He persuades them, and then a music Agent, that they’ll soon be the next big thing. Our difference, he says, is that “we’re a bunch of misfits -an astrophysicist, a dentist and a Pakistani- who will know how to reach all those other misfits out there”.
This ability -and need- to make a connection is one of the themes that drives the story. Freddy (and May) have the instinctive nous of how to connect with and move an audience no matter how large. Freddy feeds off their love (movingly shown at their final thrilling Band Aid Hyde Park concert) even as he mucks up his own personal connections, from his first heterosexual love to his later homosexual decadence.
The story also underlines the link between success and originality. Freddie’s push to force the development of the eponymous Bohemian Rhapsody and the band’s self-belief, despite the misgivings of his agent and the opprobrium of the music press, is the turning point that marks the band out as a pioneer.
“Open your eyes,
Look up to the skies and see
I’m just a poor boy…
Mama, life had just begun”
Be true to yourself, make a connection! These truisms…anchors to the genius of Queen, remain elusive to its principal singer.
For the personal self awareness, so brilliantly expressed in his music, and genuine human connectedness comes too late…if not for us, his army of fans, but for him, Farouk, the buck-toothed singer.
But the link between this death wish and the well of Freddy’s abundant creativity is one of the many under-explored areas of the story. (I also wish the writers had also taken the time, and courage, to tease out the role casual racism – hinted at but shied away from – played in his evolution as a performer)
The band itself is relegated to the co-star of the story. Freddy’s conniving friends and his own hubris are marked as the causes of its collapse (Dare we call his character “mercurial”?). The rest of the guys, in this telling, were good, happy family men (in contrast to Freddy’s gay promiscuousness). And May certainly ensures that we know who was the creative brain behind hits like “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”. But the kinds of tensions and stresses that a better movie would have explored (as per the outstanding Beach Boys/ Brian Wilson story, “Love and Mercy”) remain off limits here.
Indeed, the real tension in the movie seems to lie between the DisneyWorld Queen and the real Freddy.
As the song asks, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
For Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie…just fantasy folks
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Dir: Bill Pohlad (Old Explorers). With: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Tom Hollander. Writers: Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) & Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon). Cinematograher: Newton Thomas Sigel (X-Men, Acopalypse), Production designer: Aaron Haye ( Terminator Genisys)