I finally caught Bohemian Rhapsody at the cinema recently. I wasn’t too bothered at first, thinking I probably wouldn’t enjoy it. In the end, it was okay, but – just like the band’s discography – it had some killer moments, surrounded by too much filler.
The problem with music biopics is that they tend to go down two routes. They’re either interesting artistic exercises (Control (2007), Ray (2004), I’m Not There (2007)), or they exist as a paint-by numbers exercise to sell cinema tickets on the strength of their subject’s name.
Bohemian Rhapsody falls firmly in the latter. It’s always risky watching a biopic when you know so much about the band. How will the film keep me interested and entertain me, when I already know what’s going to happen?
This film isn’t for me though. It’s for the other 99% of the cinema-viewing public; those whose experience of the band is a well-played copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits in their car’s CD-changer, and the knowledge only that Freddie Mercury died of AIDS.
It’s a wonder the film ever got made at all. Original lead Sacha Baron Cohen departed the project back in 2013, after falling out with the film’s executive-producers, Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor. He claims they wanted Mercury’s death to be plotted in the middle of the film, with the second half dealing with Queen’s dull as dishwater post-Mercury career. He wouldn’t clarify which of the two said this to him, before adding that Brian May was “an amazing musician” but “not a great movie producer.”
Baron Cohen’s involvement might have led to a better film. He suggested directors David Fincher and Tom Hooper, before the film landed with Bryan Singer, whose departure due to ‘personal issues’ led to the film being completed by Dexter Fletcher. Having seen what Fincher can do with a biopic (The Social Network (2010)), it’s a real shame he wasn’t hired. Hooper would also have been an interesting choice, being no stranger to biopics either, with both The Damned United (2009) and The King’s Speech (2010) under his name.
Baron Cohen’s mooted replacement was Ben ‘low whisper’ Whishaw, an actor with a similarly limited range as the film’s eventual star, Rami ‘low energy’ Malek. I first saw Malek in HBO’s mini-series The Pacific, in a role that suited his mumbling, bug-eyed weirdness. He then landed a similarly comatose lead in Mr. Robot, a TV show that rewarded viewers of its first year with an awful nudge-nudge-wink-wink season finale.
We’ll never know what Baron Cohen’s interpretation of Mercury would be like, but we can imagine. And I imagine it to be far, far more interesting than what we got from Malek. Aside from a bit of pouting, and a plummy accent, I didn’t ever think I saw Freddie Mercury in him. His performance (and the film’s marketing) reduces Freddie to a caricature of a moustache and a pair of aviator sunglasses. He’s just won the Golden Globe though (which might suggest an Oscar win in February), so what do I know.
The casting of the rest of the band deserves credit though. At one point, at a band meeting to discuss Mercury’s plans to go solo, the actor playing John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello, also from The Pacific) looked so much like the bassist, that I thought it was him. I glanced at the actor playing Brian May (Gwilym Lee), who embodied the guitarist from his first scene, and the lines between fiction and reality started to blur. Then the camera cut to Rami Malek and it was like somebody waking me up from sleepwalking.
Only Ben Hardy’s casting as drummer Roger Taylor felt a little off the mark. The actor did a fine job delivering his lines, but he just didn’t come across as enough of a cunt.
Much has been said about the screenwriters’ toying with timelines for dramatic effect, leading to a glut of historical inaccuracies. Most importantly, Freddie Mercury didn’t learn he had AIDS until 1987, and didn’t inform the band until 1989 – four years after the film’s Live Aid finale.
Some of the other changes didn’t even make sense. Backstage at Live Aid, Mercury passes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it U2, leaving the stage, fresh from their legendary set (when Bono decided to spend three minutes dancing with a member of the audience, rather than perform their big hit, Pride (In The Name Of Love)). But it was Dire Straits, not U2, who played directly before Queen. Wouldn’t a sweatband-headed Mark Knopfler be a more recognisable figure to walk past? He could even have been walking with a yoga-suited Sting. Given how loose the writers were with the facts, they might as well have had him walking past a jumpsuited Elvis.
The most annoying thing about all of this, of course, is that the film will now become the generally accepted version of events. Adults of today and tomorrow will think that Queen were on the verge of breaking up before Live Aid, not that they used the opportunity to win back public support lost after playing in apartheid South Africa. They’ll think that they were a last minute addition to the Live Aid bill, when in fact they were one of the first bands announced. They’ll think that the band’s Live Aid set was notable for the ramp-up in charity donations, when it was Michael Burke’s video report from Ethiopia, introduced by David Bowie and set to the music of the Car’s Drive, which started the ball rolling. They’ll think the band were managed by that creepy Irish guy from Game Of Thrones and Queer As Folk.
I remember finding about Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis while reading the headlines during my Sunday morning paper round. By the following Sunday, the papers were filled with his obituaries. It was only then, when Bohemian Rhapsody was rereleased as a cassette single – which I bought, helping it get to #1 in the UK – that I started listening to the band.
Many years later, I picked up a second-hand copy of the album the song was taken from, 1975’s A Night At The Opera. It is a fine record, but the stand-out track by country mile is Bohemian Rhapsody.
Listening to I’m In Love With My Car reminds me of my favourite line of the film, a subtle ongoing joke with the rest of the band ribbing Taylor about his song: “So, Roger, what would you say is the sexiest part of a car?”
Hit: Bohemian Rhapsody
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