Sarah MacNeill reviews ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and examines how almost thirty years after his death, Freddie Mercury is still performing for his fans – even if only metaphorically. However, the controversial reception from critics demands the question: is this film a success, or simply feeding off of his fans’ unwavering devotion?
Some eight years (and three Freddies) after the project was ﬁrst announced, October saw the much anticipated release of Bohemian Rhapsody. Critically, the ﬁlm has fallen as ﬂat as Queen’s controversial 1982 disco album Hot Space, yet the biopic has reigned over the UK box oﬃce since its opening weekend. As well as the reception, the production of this ﬁlm has not been a smooth one, with many changes of staff and direction in the eight years since guitarist Brian May announced the project.
The question of who would play Freddie Mercury sparked the most controversy throughout production. Initially Sacha Baron Cohen promised a gritty and explicit portrayal of the singer; then it was to be critically acclaimed actor Ben Whishaw, renowned for his portrayal of anguished heroes. Ultimately though, it was Rami Malek, the man behind the social-anxiety-ridden programmer in Mr Robot, who was chosen for the role. Seemingly an odd choice at ﬁrst, Malek’s commitment to studying Mercury, down to the smallest facial movements and expressions, led to the standout performance of the ﬁlm. He captured the complex nature of the character well, exploring Mercury’s shyness and vulnerability as well as his on-stage bravado.
The ﬁlm begins backstage before Queen’s show-stealing Live Aid performance. As the band are about to take to the stage, we’re taken back to 1970, where Queen’s story begins. A young Farrokh Bulsara (who would go on to change his name to Freddie Mercury) attends a concert held by the band Smile, where he ﬁrst meets his future girlfriend Mary Austin. Backstage after the performance, we see the rock trio (guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and frontman Tim Staffell) fall into momentary turmoil as Staffell announces his departure from the band to join folk-rock trio Humpy Bong. Bulsara conveniently appears moments later asking to demo some songs. Some cringe-inducing dialogue about extra teeth later, Bulsara is suddenly on stage with the full Queen lineup of May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon, who appears without introduction. We then follow the band’s bumpy path to stardom through the 70s and 80s – special credit must be given to Julien Day for his costuming that beautifully captures the band’s flamboyance and the styles of this era, adding an authenticity to the storytelling. After what appeared to be a successful first performance, there was pushback from record companies and critics alike. In spite of this, we see the band thrive in live performances and in the studio. We see the recording of classics like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Another one Bites the Dust’ and ‘We Will Rock You’, including some fun nods to the band’s unorthodox production methods like the scattering of coins on a drum head and a microphone being shaken in bucket. These quirks give us a glimpse into the band’s unique personalities which are often overlooked by the press in favour of gossip on Freddie. The band dynamic is also explored a little, however it feels more like rose-tinted nostalgia than a true-to-life account of events.
The focal point of the ﬁlm is Mercury’s battle with his sexuality and its effect on his complex relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin, who outs Mercury, resulting in their breakup. Every moment the pair share on screen thereafter is bittersweet: despite Freddie’s lavish drug-fuelled parties and promiscuous behaviour, it’s clear that he never stopped loving Austin. We can feel Mercury’s heartache throughout the ﬁlm, particularly when Austin announces her new long-term boyfriend. Bohemian Rhapsody also touches on Mercury’s controversial private life including his homosexual relationships, drug use and the relentless questioning from the press about his personal affairs, which took a huge toll on his mental health. Towards the end of the ﬁlm, he announces his AIDS diagnosis to the band (Mercury died from bronchopnuemonia – a complication of AIDS – in 1991). The ﬁlm, however, did not go into much depth about these issues, and overall felt very safe: a far cry from Baron Cohen’s promised “gritty R-rated tell-all” about the bisexual singer. Though this could be seen as a move from May and Taylor to protect Mercury’s legacy and keep the ﬁlm “PG”, even Freddie himself may not have agreed with this decision: “You can do what you want with my music,” he said on what to do with his legacy, “but don’t make me boring.” Perhaps with a similar thought in mind, the ﬁlm also avoids exploring the final years of his life, instead finishing with Queen’s triumphant Live Aid performance. This maintains the lighthearted tone of the ﬁlm, however, for a plot that seems heavily focused on Mercury, we miss out on many interesting stories that the public perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise known about him. For example, his dedication and love for his art meant that he recorded music until his final days, even when he was too unwell to stand up: the song ‘Mother Love’ is partially sung by Brian May as Mercury died during the recording. It also misses the fact that Mercury had a very good relationship with Austin and her children towards the end of his life, eventually leaving his entire estate to her, which could have further emphasised the complex nature of their relationship.
The biopic received 60% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics, and much of the criticism is well-deserved. The ﬁlm seems almost a parody of itself at moments, filled with cheesy dialogue and caricatures of the band members: as the “womaniser” of the band, Taylor is never seen without a girl on his arm, and “quiet one” Deacon (incidentally the only band member not on the production team) has almost no character development whatsoever. It was clear that the ﬁlm suffered from its conception from an ever-changing team, the interests of remaining band members and multiple directors during filming (credited director Bryan Singer was ﬁred last year for repeated absence). However, despite its obvious flaws, the overarching triumph of Bohemian Rhapsody is, of course, the music. The soundtrack is full of Queen hits, along with deep cuts and rare live recordings for the superfans; small musical details such as Brian May’s cover of the 20th Century Fox fanfare add character and are welcome additions. The ﬁlm’s reception seems a good metaphor for Queen’s music: though they never truly reached critical success, their songs were loved by the masses. Bohemian Rhapsody is not going to win any Oscars, but I dare you not to come out of the cinema singing ‘We are the Champions’.
Film and TV Editor: Christina Riley