It's a Softened Life
As you may or may not be aware, I recently got back from a brief but pleasantly bracing trip around some of the sights of the Kyrgyz Republic. One of the things about this trip that will be burned into my memory for years to come, probably, was the fact that our driver, Bakyt, was – in addition to being a keen advocate of transcendental meditation and a lover of boiled eggs – a huge fan of the band Queen, despite speaking minimal English. Five days spent on the road listening to the collected greatest hits would have got very wearing with many other artists, I suspect, but it just served to remind me that Queen are possessors of a tremendous back catalogue of endlessly listenable hits – and also that there probably aren't many other European bands with the same kind of penetration into the central Asian market.
Then again, I may be biased. I am of that generation who were just about to go to university when Freddie Mercury passed away at the end of 1991, and Queen – a major band for the previous few years – suddenly became inescapably massive. The nature of Mercury's illness and death, and all that followed it, is so inextricably bound up with the way the band is perceived that it's impossible to know if they would be quite so famous today had things gone differently.
But famous they remain, and I suppose we should be somewhat surprised that it has taken over a quarter of a century for a movie about the band to appear (not to mention grateful that it's not a big-screen version of the jukebox musical We Will Rock You). The travails of this movie are fairly well-known, with various changes of personnel and (allegedly) focus along the way. Here it is, entitled Bohemian Rhapsody and directed by Bryan Singer (with uncredited contributions from Dexter Fletcher after Singer was sacked late on in production).
It is, if nothing else, a remarkable story: Rami Malek plays Farrokh Bulsara, a Zanzibar-born Asian immigrant living in London and working as a baggage-handler at Heathrow Airport in 1970. A keen songwriter and fan of the local rock band Smile, he has the bad fortune to offer his work to them ten minutes after their lead singer quits – but then manages to land the role of vocalist for himself anyway, alongside uniquely-tonsured axe hero Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Having recruited a bass player, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and changed the names of the band to Queen and their lead singer to Freddie Mercury, the quartet set sail for rock and roll stardom…
I have to confess I turned up to Bohemian Rhapsody feeling rather cynical and not expecting to be particularly impressed: this had the feel of a hagiography in the making, just another brand extension for the band. Then there's that title – is there any particular reason why it's named after a song which no-one really understands? Why not call it A Kind of Magic, or Princes of the Universe, or I Want It All, all of which would arguably be at least as thematically appropriate? No, they've just gone for the Queen song title which everybody knows. Then there were the various rumours in circulation following the early attempts to mount this movie – Sacha Baron Cohen was attached to play Mercury at one point, and claimed that the plan was for the singer to die halfway through the film, which would then go on to depict May and Taylor's subsequent successes (the band members have denied this).
However, this is an extremely difficult film not to warm to – always assuming you have any fondness for Queen's music, anyway. Proceedings get underway with an ear-splitting rendition of the Fox fanfare by May, and the film kicks off with a shameless attempt to win the audience over by playing Somebody to Love over the opening sequence. How can you resist a song like that? The earnest charm of the actors playing the young band members is a plus, too (Malek in particular is extremely good), and the film engages in some of the rock biopic clichés with gusto.
On the other hand, it is a bit cheesy, and a bit corny, and some of the dialogue is duff – ‘No musical ghetto can contain us!' cries Roger Taylor at one point, rather improbably. There is also an excruciatingly knowing gag about Wayne's World, which only becomes worse when you realise that an unrecognisable Mike Myers is actually in the same scene. It also becomes very clear that this is a Freddie Mercury bio-pic rather than a Queen movie per se; his is the fullest characterisation by far, with the others reduced to a sort of caricature of their public image – May is a clever technician, Taylor a slightly stroppy ladies' man, and Deacon – well, Deacon is initially the comic relief, but to be fair the film's portrayal of him becomes more balanced as it continues.
The initial vague resemblance to Reeves and Mortimer's Slade on Holiday sketches, or perhaps This is Spinal Tap, does recede, especially when the film focuses on Mercury's complex relationship with his long-term companion Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his attempts to come to terms with his sexuality. This is woven in with lots of the kind of moments you might expect – the band in the studio putting together some of their biggest hits, shooting iconic videos, and so on.
There is, of course, an abundance of potential material here, but it's always very clear that we are getting the family-friendly, Hollywood version of the Mercury story here. History is rewritten throughout, sometimes subtly, sometimes definitely not, to simplify things and provide a satisfying narrative arc for the movie – Mercury and Deacon join the band at the same time, not a year apart, while the singer's diagnosis with AIDS comes a number of years earlier than was actually the case. (There's no dwarf with a bowl of cocaine on his head, either.)
Whatever you think of this, a more problematic area is the film's depiction of Mercury's sexuality and lifestyle. Would Freddie Mercury really have been on board with a movie that appears to suggest that his gayness was the defining tragedy of his life? Was he really the lonely, isolated, tragic figure portrayed in the movie, driven to excess as a result? Certainly his partner and manager Paul Prenter (played by Allen Leech) is presented as the villain of the piece. The movie only seems willing to address in passing the notion that Mercury's sexuality, rather than being a regrettable aspect of his life, was in fact central to his personality, his style of performance, and the music that he made. (One is slightly surprised that Bryan Singer was on board for a movie with this kind of subtext, to be honest.)
In the end, as long as you bear in mind that this is a tidied-up, fictionalised version of Freddie Mercury's life, then there is a huge amount here to enjoy – mainly the music, but also the performances. The film is structured to conclude with Queen's set at Live Aid in 1985 – impressively recreated, and depicted as possibly the greatest moment in rock history as well as (somewhat absurdly) the defining day of Mercury's life – and it is an exceptional sequence, thrilling and also surprisingly moving.
Always assuming – and I know I've said this before – you like Queen. Some people don't; there's no particular reason why anyone should. But a lot of people do, and unless they are fanatical purists where the band are concerned, I rather suspect this film will be just what they're looking for. Bohemian Rhapsody‘s lack of concern with the details may not be very characteristic of the musicians it depicts, but its determination to give the audience a terrific, memorable time is absolutely in the spirit of Queen.