Sunday 19 May 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody review: 'Malek's energy and conviction overcome the dramatic dips of a film that's far from perfect'

3 stars

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

If there's one thing everyone remembers about the 1985 Live Aid concert, it's Freddie Mercury. He and Queen emerged on the Wembley stage that sunny evening to blow away a star-studded field of rivals including The Who, Dire Straits, Elton John, David Bowie and a young U2 with a live performance of astonishing power and emotion. Freddie played his 70,000-strong audience like a violin, leading them in sing-songs and totally commanding the biggest stage the world had to offer. Up till that point, I'd wondered slightly what the point of Queen was, but thereafter, never.

He, and they, were unique, a strange blend of heavy rock and cheesy pop, with Freddie's operatic enthusiasms thrown in for good measure.

He died of an Aids-related illness in 1991, but his band's songs have remained big favourites on radio playlists and downloading sites, and his reputation as a pop genius has only grown. For all its faults, Bohemian Rhapsody may enhance it.

The project, which was first announced as long ago as 2010, has had a troubled history, including a mid-shoot change of director: it was on-set tensions that apparently led to the departure of Bryan Singer, with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and director Dexter Fletcher stepping in to finish the film.

Freddie's old band mates Brian May and Roger Taylor came up with the idea for Bohemian Rhapsody, which was originally to star Sacha Baron Cohen. Perhaps happily, we never got to see that questionable item of casting reach fruition, and instead it's Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek who takes on a challenging and difficult role.

Difficult, because Mercury had a restless, quicksilver quality that was always going to be hard to catch: too little welly in the performance and it just wouldn't seem like Freddie; too much and one risked an embarrassing caricature. Overall, Malek succeeds splendidly, and his energy and conviction overcome the dramatic dips of a film that's far from perfect, but very enjoyable.

The Live Aid scene
The Live Aid scene

Born in Zanzibar, raised in India, Farrokh Bulsara moved to London with his family at the age of 17, and when we first meet him in Bohemian Rhapsody he's unloading bags at Heathrow Airport. "I'm not from Pakistan," he patiently explains to the moronic co-workers who call him a 'Paki'. In fact, he's Parsi, an Indian-based Zoroastrian sect, and while his kindly traditional dad is hoping his son will follow a respectable path, Farrokh has other ideas.

He's already changed his name to Freddie, and his interest in music leads him to a dodgy pub gig, performed by a band called Smile. Afterwards, Freddie buttonholes the guitarist, Brian May, (Gwilym Lee) and the drummer, Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and tells them he should be their frontman. When they react dubiously, he bursts into song: Queen is born.

In amusing but rather shambolic fashion, the film charts the band's march towards global success: their first big hit, an eye-catchingly provocative Top Of The Pops appearance, and the fractious creation of their 1975 album A Night At The Opera. Amusingly, Mike Myers appears as a dubious EMI executive who will bitterly regret refusing to release the bizarre, six-minute epic Bohemian Rhapsody as a single.

After someone else does, Queen's popularity explodes, breaking America and establishing their reputation as possibly the best live rock 'n' roll act in the world. But it's not long before everyone, especially Freddie, has started to lose the run of themselves.

Read more: ‘He wasn’t with him for the fame and fortune – it was genuine love’ – Armagh actor Aaron McCusker plays Freddie Mercury’s Irish boyfriend in Bohemian Rhapsody

The film's quietest, most touching moments explore his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), a young woman he marries and will remain very close to, even after he and she accept that he is gay. But Bohemian Rhapsody is not big on subtlety: it tells Freddie's story loudly, taking dramatic shortcuts, over-neatly conflating events and reducing most of the surrounding characters to single dimensions. Some of the dialogue's a bit heavy-handed too, but I must say I was thoroughly entertained.

Malek handles a pair of dentures and Freddie's oddly plummy speaking voice with aplomb, and captures the cheeky, charming, outrageous persona with which Mercury both confronted the world and protected himself from it. Fittingly, the film ends with a stirring extended recreation of that Live Aid performance, with Freddie as Icarus, touching the sun but about to fall.  

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A, 134mins) - 3/5 stars

Also releasing this week: Katie review: 'Katie Taylor documentary is beautiful - and a bit of a knockout'

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