Monday, 29 October 2018

Film Review - Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

You're a legend, Fred.
Five days on from Bohemian Rhapsody's UK release two distinct reactions to the film are apparent. There are those who deem it to be a frustratingly superficial biopic of the rock-band Queen, one that glosses over the more complex and decadent aspects of lead singer Freddie Mercury's life. Then there are others who embrace what the makers clearly intended it to be - a warm-hearted crowd-pleaser that revels in the band as a creative force, with emphasis on its charismatic frontman. It seems I'm in the latter group. I went to see it on the day of its release and - while acknowledging some of its detractors' points - I had an undeniably great time. 
Plot-wise the film is standard, charting Queen's stellar ascent, while providing a degree of insight into the lead singer's turbulent private and inner lives. It kicks off around the time young Farrokh Bulsara (living with his immigrant Parsi family in Middlesex) meets lead guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor and cheekily invites himself into their band Smile. The evolution of Smile into Queen and Farrokh into magnetic stage performer Freddie is charted swiftly, as is the vocalist's relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin - the woman who would end up being his closest lifelong friend. But there are tensions too. Mercury's conflict regarding his sexuality throws his personal life into turmoil, while excess and ego put him at odds with his own musical colleagues.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a big, brash entertainment that unashamedly hits all the highlights of Queen's career - from the creation of the movie's title song to the band's triumphant Live Aid performance in 1985. With Dexter Fletcher having replaced Bryan Singer as director partway through the shoot, it still manages to be a slick and seamless piece of filmmaking, at its most thrilling during the dynamic on-stage sequences. There's an easy and often funny sense of camaraderie between the Queen members, although the others are really only sketched - May for all his iconic guitar sound is the calm voice of reason, Taylor the womaniser, bassist John Deacon the quiet endearing one. Meanwhile the band's lawyer Jim 'Miama' Beach, played with scene-stealing deadpan humour by Tom Hollander, becoming a kind of fifth member. 
But this show belongs without argument to American actor Rami Malek as Mercury. Best known for his role as an introverted computer genius in TV's Mr Robot, Malek physically and vocally transforms himself into the singer. When he struts about the stage wielding his mike-stand and hyping up the crowd, it feels less an impersonation and more a channeling of the actual Freddie - intoxicating and joyous like the real deal. He convinces as the character elsewhere too. His wrangles with his band-mates nicely convey the clash between middle-class student rockers and this flamboyant working-class immigrant. And the scenes with Mary (Sing Street's Lucy Boynton) are heartfelt and at times painfully sad. If the script only hints at Mercury's isolation and at his fear once HIV becomes a part of his life, Malek's performance does much to convey the rest.
The production's pursuit of a family-friendly 12A rating admittedly means that much of Freddie's crazy lifestyle is only alluded to. And while the film does convey the tragedy of his illness and early passing, it foregoes much of his AIDS battle in favour of a victorious concert ending. (For a music biopic with real guts and grime see Control, the superb but guttingly bleak portrait of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis.) Bohemian Rhapsody never pretends to be anything more than a celebration of the man and the band - a music-heavy reminder of what a potent combination they were, whatever the personal conflicts of their lead singer.
Think of the movie like a greatest hits compilation, stripped of lesser-known album tracks. It's a bold, commercial overview of Queen, a colourful introduction to the outrageous force of nature called Freddie Mercury and the virtuosity of his musical family. Perfect for a generation who didn't experience them first time around, and easy nostalgia for those of us who did. It's not gritty. It's not challenging. But taken on its own terms it's still massively entertaining.
Gut Reaction: Kind of aware that is wasn't digging deep, but swept along with it too much to care. It made me laugh, it made me miss Fred and it damn well rocked me.

Where Are the Women?: Like A Star is Born this is set in the blokey world of rock. But Boynton is given space to move us as the platonic love of Mercury's life.

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. The jokey bits are funny, the dramatic bits are poignant and the music-making is sublime. A hugely enjoyable night at the movies.

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