The critics have not been particularly kind to Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury biopic telling the rise, almost-fall and rise of legendary rock band Queen. In fairness, I do understand some of their points. However, what the critics have failed to grasp is that mainstream audiences don’t particularly want a grim film that explores the excesses of Freddie Mercury’s notorious hedonism. They want a fun, bright, sympathetic, respectful film that prints the legend. Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t a great film, and I don’t pretend that it is. However despite changing directors (credited director Bryan Singer was replaced by Dexter Fletcher for the last part of the shoot) it is undeniably entertaining, and Rami Malek’s lead performance as Freddie is terrific.
The film charts the genesis of the band in the early 1970s to their legendary performance at Live Aid in 1985. It begins with Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) looking for a new member of their band Smile, after their lead singer quits. Along comes the obviously talented, born-to-be-a-megastar Freddie, the band is renamed Queen, and… well, the rest is history. The film romps through their rise without really showing any great artistic struggle, which arguably robs the film of dramatic power. Queen’s innovative musical genius is never in doubt.
More interesting is Freddie’s story. The film is fairly superficial regarding his background, both in terms of his relationship with his parents, and their exile from Zanzibar, but his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) is given a lot of focus. His subsequent promiscuous homosexual lifestyle is dealt with very discreetly, and again, part of me can understand why there is probably a great film to be made about the darker side of Freddie’s life at that point. Malek’s performance hints at a desperate sadness, emptiness and spiritual longing that could have been much expanded on (the tragic AIDS diagnosis and eventual death is dealt with very briefly in a short montage, and in a postscript). His relationship with his bandmates (especially Roger) is important, but there is a sense in which we are being shown the band-approved, authorised version of the story, which only plays lip service to the warts-and-all biopic principle, rather than delving deeper.
However, as I have said, mainstream audiences don’t want Control (the brilliant but grim monochrome Ian Curtis/Joy Division biopic). They want to hear the hits and have a good time. Bohemian Rhapsody may be lazily structured, romping through timelines with too many shorthand montages, but it is undeniably fun to watch. It also manages to cram in virtually every one of my favourite Queen tracks (even The Show Must Go On from 1991 is permitted a run in the latter part of the end credits, where it cannot be accused of anachronism).
In short, unlike its subject, Bohemian Rhapsody is a film that definitely plays it safe. However, it will nonetheless prove hugely entertaining to fans. I myself recall seeing that Live Aid performance as a ten-year old, and thinking it was incredible. Seeing it again here, in a dramatic context, tugged my nostalgia heartstrings until my critical faculties surrendered.