★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
There’s a moment approximately two thirds into Bohemian Rhapsody, Bryan Singer’s long-gestating biopic of rock legend Freddie Mercury, when its tawdry by-the-numbers biopic act slips, revealing the dormant hatchet job beneath. Mercury’s (Rami Malek) bandmates confront their unruly figurehead about his recent spate of drug-fuelled abandon, and Brian May (played uncannily by Gwilym Lee) accuses his friend of destroying their “family”.
This particular F word encompasses the central dishonesty of this efficiently constructed but morally dubious film. “Family” here extends beyond the band, to Mercury’s parents and his ex-wife, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). They’re posed as the wholesome, loving opposite to those with whom the lead singer allegedly chose to surround himself on his journey of self-discovery: Freddie’s complex relationship with his sexuality and subsequent carousing are framed as the direct cause of Queen’s fracture.
By Brian May’s own admission (“In a way, all of us were out of control..it screwed us up.”), the blame did not lie purely on Mercury’s shoulders, yet the lead guitarists’ producer credit – and that of drummer Roger Taylor – speaks volumes. Simple queer erasure – something many fans feared from initial marketing – would almost have been preferable to this portrayal of Mercury as an upstart; a self-centred child whose various lovers and friends are depicted as a uniformly leather-clad, opportunistic bunch who urge him to pursue a solo career in the hopes they might reap some reward.
Malek’s performance is as passionate and honest as one can be when adhering to such a compromised script. He achieves the endlessly spry, whiplash physicality of Mercury’s live performances perfectly, but there’s some eye-watering wig work and his prosthetic overbite is one spittle fleck shy of caricature. Plus, the scenes of album recordings and stage shows utilise real recordings of the band, and Freddie’s vocals lie atop the footage of Malek’s noiseless crooning like oil on water.
Though not exactly taking a backstage in terms of screen time (whatever the film’s moral assessment of Mercury, he is certifiably the lead), Malek is poorly served in the recreation of epochal studio moments (all, incidentally, playing out like a chronological karaoke playlist). True, he brazenly blathers at a disparaging manager (Mike Myers) about the operatic inspiration for the titular track, but his main role in the band’s recording time is to hear May, Taylor and John Deacon come up with all the legendary riffs and beats. Bohemian Rhapsody’s Freddie Mercury is far too busy drinking, getting ‘high’ (limited by a 12a/PG-13 certificate, the film alludes to drugs with vague shots of powder on tabletops) or otherwise acting out to contribute anything.
As if this weren’t enough to conjure a version of the artist that he himself would likely detest, Mercury’s struggle with AIDS is also reworked to fit a rise-fall-redemption narrative. His diagnosis with the disease in April 1987 is retconned to take place just before the band’s sensational performance at Live Aid in July 1985, in order to bookend the film.
These twenty minutes of pure aural wildfire are recreated with stunning accuracy, but the joy of experiencing those classic anthems in all their glory is insufficient recompense for character assassination. All the seat-rocking surround sound and copy-pasted CG crowds money can buy will never match the emotion of the original footage, Singer’s paper-thin replication leaving this critic wishing, painfully, for the greatest rock band in history to simply stop playing.
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