Bohemian Rhapsody is a superficial but thrilling romp through the grandiose British rock band’s catalogue of hits, not a biopic.
It is also another act of myth preservation from a band that has done rather well since the death of genius frontman Freddie Mercury in 1991, what with the jukebox musical We Will Rock You and two of the four members touring with ring-in Adam Lambert.
But it’s also a very good rock movie, one containing a compelling, if restrained, portrait of Mercury, whose flamboyant swagger, physicality and ugly duckling-ness is captured neatly by Rami Malek.
It is a better film, I think, than many reviewers have already suggested, or its troubled production might indicate. It sounds great, too. And, as one scene in which the screen fills with quotes from the many crappy reviews of Bohemian Rhapsody, the single at the time, shows, critics and Queen have rarely got along. A better film, yes, but not a drama.
Think of it as a musical – where the talking scenes are there to set up the next song and it’s all happening in an artificial PG-rated world – and Bohemian Rhapsody makes its own kind of sense.
It’s nearer in a way to something such as, say, Jersey Boys rather than previous dramas about real bands with soon-to-expire singers. It is in the same vein as Control, about Joy Division, and Oliver Stone’s The Doors, but it sure is a lot more superficial, melodramatic fun. It’s Queen after all.
As a rock history, yes, it’s a bit rubbish. Queen wasn’t Mercury’s first band, as this suggests. They went through a couple of albums singing about fairies and ogres to little fanfare before those genre-mashing hits. They don’t figure here. Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with Aids before Queen’s comeback appearance at Live Aid in 1985. Here, that performance is made to look like his triumphant last hurrah in a powerful sequence that captures almost all of the 20-minute set. Mercury signing a solo album deal becomes a treasonous act and dramatic pivot point, despite drummer Roger Taylor having already released two albums of his own.
But there are plenty of facts and footnotes to remind viewers that Queen was a co-operative effort rather than just the Freddie Mercury show and some far less interesting blokes (it seems at pains to point out who wrote what hit).
It’s all rendered with the benefit of I-told-you-so hindsight, too. The band are seen discussing the market repositioning of breakthrough album A Night at the Opera with their label boss (an unrecognisable Mike Myers, who gets a line that’s an amusing Wayne’s World reference) even before they’ve recorded it.
It’s also predictably coy about Mercury’s closeted love life, concentrating largely on his early girlfriend and lifelong friend Mary Austin, whereas his late-80s relationship with Jim Hutton, his partner until his death, is shoehorned in near the end.
So, it’s not much of a biopic. Bohemian Rhapsody the film is a bit like the eponymous song in many ways. It can’t settle on one tempo, it contains plenty of errant nonsense, its grip on the factual may induce head banging. But it’s got a very big ending and it’s undeniably thrilling all the same.
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This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.