Updated: Nov 19, 2018
Caught between real life, and ignoring the fantasy.
Confession time, I’m not really a Queen fan. I don’t mind them. I’m just not really a fan of overly bombastic music. I like some of their stuff. “Killer Queen” is great. “Another One Bites the Dust” slinks along with a snake-like groove. “Under Pressure” is amazing (enhanced by Dame David Bowie of course). But someone, somewhere decided that “Bohemian Rhapsody” (the song) was the pinnacle of forward thinking innovation in pop music (Kraftwerk anyone? Hello Giorgio Moroder? Even Tubular bloody Bells?). And it stuck.
I also don’t totally buy how they have attempted to secure their legacy. Going down the route of rock musical is fine (a la Abba) and whilst “We Will Rock You” has a plot so ridiculous and shoe-horned-in, it makes “Mamma Mia” look like “Pride and Prejudice”, it’s been a big success in that genre, proving you need the breadth of tunes to make such things work. (In that context, “Viva Forever” was always destined to be stillborn). But continuing to tour with two out of four original members (and fudging the elephant in the room that one of the missing four provided more than 25% of the pull in the first place) is a bit disingenuous. Whatever you think of the Abba bandwagon, they resolutely said no to touring again (OR DID THEY??) Which brings us to the film…
Despite “Bohemian Rhapsody” being famously troubled since birth (one director and two potential Freddie’s in Baron Cohen and Wishaw fleeing the scene), the end product is actually quite coherent. But what it can’t decide is whether it’s a Queen biopic, or a Freddie Mercury biopic, and it ends up being neither. In this way, it reminds me a little of “The Iron Lady”. That film flirted between being a full on political drama, and a study in old age and dementia. It too ended up being neither. And like “The Iron Lady” (and this year’s “The Darkest Hour”), it’s dwarfed by an excellent individual performance propping up a pretty ropey script.
The film has the remaining members of Queen’s fingerprints all over it. It’s at pains to constantly reinforce who wrote what song, and won’t let the spectacle of Freddie Mercury totally dominate, casting a critical eye over his solo adventures and concluding that both sides mutually needed each other. But in doing so, it’s not being properly honest with its audience. Proper Queen fans probably know who came up with a specific drum roll or middle eight. Casual cinema goers won’t really care. So, when it decides to focus on the real-life elements of the story, it picks out the really boring bits to focus on.
Where it avoids reality completely, is in depicting the hedonism of Freddie Mercury himself. I’m no expert on the man, but from what I’ve read he properly loved a party. Really loved it. His escapades could make Elton John look like Winnie the Poo. There seemed to be a childlike, mischievous glee for mayhem and pure debauchery which the film doesn’t attempt to capture. A lot of naysayers have focused on the film’s treatment of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality and the fact that it seems to portray gay life as “the dark side”, and wouldn’t- it-have-been-better-if-he’d-married-that-nice-Mary-girl? And whilst I do have a problem with that to a point, my main issue is that it doesn’t capture the man’s pure appetite for excess. It seems like he made no apologies for his behaviour in life (and impending death) and certainly didn’t seem to have many regrets or look for pity. But whilst it would be ok if the film frowns on this (it vaguely does), it doesn’t give the viewer much scope to witness it and decide for themselves. The apologetic reality of the film is that Freddie Mercury has a few drinks, pops up late for a rehearsal and everyone tut tut’s a bit.
There’s a few other problems with it. His relationship with Jim Hutton is bizarrely whisked through from “weren’t you the guy I had a conversation with at a party 10 years ago” to “hello life partner!” D0 we really need the full Live Aid set list (and fill it with portentous meaning when he didn’t even know he was HIV positive at that stage.) And it seems odd that his family seem sweetly unaware that Live Aid was even happening (“Oh, we might watch it on the telly”).
But the main issue is that doesn’t go far enough in its depiction of real life. And unfortunately, it’s the real-life elements that they leave out which would have provided a real fantastical escape.