Monday, 14 January 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Rami Malek brings Freddie Mercury to life in crowd-pleaser Bohemian Rhapsody

Director: Bryan Singer (Dexter Fletcher)
Cast: Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), Lucy Boynton (Mary Austin), Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Joe Marzello (John Deacon), Aidan Gillen (John Reid), Allen Leech (Paul Prenter), Tom Hollander (Jim Beach), Mike Myers (Ray Foster), Aaron McCusker (Jim Hutton), Ace Bhatti (Bomi Bulsara), Meneda Das (Jer Bulsara)

Biography can be a tricky territory on film. How can you hope to capture a whole life, with all its ups and downs, its shades of grey, in a single sitting of two hours? Well the truth is you can’t really – and Bohemian Rhapsody is an extremely enjoyable but very safe and traditional attempt to tell something of Mercury’s life. It carefully organises his life into a clear five act structure (Beginnings, Early success, Triumph, Temptation and fall, Redemption) that wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to the writer of a medieval mystery play.

The film uses Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance as the book ends for a story that covers Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) as he joins Queen, works closely with the band to compose the hit songs that would make them legends, then falls tragically under the influence of band manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and leaves the band to build a solo career and succumbs to those dreaded demons of drink, drugs and sex. The film culminates in a brilliant recreation of Live Aid (by the way, only making the vaguest of passing references to the cause behind Live Aid, with the main motivation for performing seeming to be that everyone else is) which, despite some wonky CGI at points, brilliantly captures the atmosphere of being at an electric live gig. 

Bohemian Rhapsody is an extremely affectionately made crowd-pleaser of a film which has convention running through its soul like sugar at the centre of stick of rock. With the heavy involvement of the surviving members of Queen and their manager, it’s a film that wants to very carefully avoid anything too controversial – which is fair enough when it’s people making a film about their friend – and does its best to shave off his rough edges, and apportion blame for faults anywhere other than Freddie.

As such, the film defines Freddie’s successes as those he achieved as part of “the family” of Queen – and his failures when he fell under the influence of others who were using him. The film draws Freddie as being desperate to find love and acceptance – from his struggles to be accepted by his traditional father (a very good performance by Ace Bhatti), to his deep love for his wife Mary Austin (while guiltily struggling with his homosexuality), to his sometimes prickly relationship with the rest of Queen, who are basically a band of brothers. Is it any wonder that someone as desperate for love as Freddie might fall under the influence of someone offering constant but not genuine affection?

Anyway, the film very carefully spreads the genius of Queen neatly around the band (we see them all chucking in songs and key ideas, even if Freddie is the driving force). Part of the reason the film works so well is that the band are right – these are songs for everyone. These are songs that make you want to be involved in their performance, that make you want to sing along and stamp your feet. It’s the magic alchemy of the band’s own genius that the film is so dependent on – even if the film does sometimes struggle to dramatise the act of creating art. Early on we see Freddie idly play the opening bars of Bohemian Rhapsody on the piano. “What’s that, it’s beautiful” asks his wife – “It has promise” Freddie shrugs. That’s about par for the course for how the songs come together in this film. What makes it work is the chemistry between the actors and the general lightness of the story telling.

That lightness is largely missing from the sections of the film that chart Freddie’s “dark days”. Keen to absolve Freddie as much as possible from fault, the film largely takes all his negative traits and actions and basically pours them into another man and identifies him as the reason for everything bad that happens in the film. I have no idea if the real Paul Prenter (a moustache twirling performance by Allen Leech) bore any resemblance to the chippy, bitter, scheming, selfish, greedy bad influence who appears in this film – but then Prenter has been dead for over 20 years so we’ll never know. The film blames everything – and I mean everything – on Prenter and paints Freddie as an innocent victim led astray.

The film also shies away as much as possible from showing us anything too gay. In fact, it’s hard not to get the awkward (if no doubt inadvertent) feeling that the film’s implying that the more Freddie got immersed in the gay underworld, the more he was consumed by his flaws and by bad things. In any case we get shots of Freddie at S&M parties, but shot with a dream like wistfulness that concentrates on Freddie walking towards the camera disconnected from his surroundings. The film juggles the timeline of Freddie’s life as much as possible to make for a clean narrative (in actual fact Prenter wasn’t dismissed until two years after Live Aid, Queen never split up and reformed and Freddie wasn’t diagnosed formally with AIDS until 1989), and it adds to a feeling that we are seeing a carefully formed drama that is telling a “better” version of Freddie’s life.

The biggest weapon in the film’s arsenal is Rami Malek’s brilliant performance in the lead role. His recreation of Freddie’s performance style and on-stage swagger is so faultless, you start to believe you are seeing the real thing. Not only does he capture the on-stage persona, but he really adds a vulnerability, loneliness and sensitivity to Freddie’s private life. He can be prickly and arrogant, but it all stems from a deep insecurity that Malek brilliantly builds with a tender empathy. It’s a star-making performance, and he is very well supported by the rest of the cast, including Lucy Boynton as his loving wife, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joe Mazzello very good as the other members of the band and Tom Hollander excellent as their eventual manager.

The main issue with the film is its strident conventionality. It obeys all the rules you would expect of a good biopic, and builds a picture of Freddie’s life that perfectly fits an ideal drama structure. Malek is superb, but the film is basically safe and fairly traditional and largely directed with a lack of imagination (although it’s troubled production, Bryan Singer’s dismissal due to “personal problems” and Dexter Fletcher’s late parachuting in to finish the film no doubt contributed to this) which offers very little that will surprise you. But I think it provides enough pleasure from Queen’s wonderful discography – and taps so successfully into the genuine love people have for the band – that it will do just enough to rock you.

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