Thursday, 8 November 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

(M) ★★★½

Director: Brian Singer & Dexter Fletcher.

Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker.

"We had the best time at your party/the wife and I thank you very much."
Bands bust their arses to make albums, not greatest hits compilations. But when people look back at an act's career, an entire oeuvre of records is usually distilled into a collection of the best and biggest songs.

The same is true of musical biopics. The methodology (in most cases) in these movies is "all killer, no filler" - just give us the hits. As such, it's the nature of the beast that things get re-organised, re-arranged and omitted to summarise and celebrate a back catalogue.

With that in mind, Bohemian Rhapsody is an excellent summary and celebration of one of rock music's finest back catalogues. Yes, the story is streamlined and ironed into something more fitting of a typical Hollywood narrative, but that's what happens with films "based" on real events. From Argo to The Imitation Game to The Greatest Showman, there are varying degrees of truth in all true stories.

Bohemian Rhapsody is an approximation of the Queen story, and it's a thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly exultant one at that. It follows Freddie Mercury (Malek), Brian May (Lee), Roger Taylor (Hardy) and John Deacon (Mazzello) from their early club shows under the name Smile to their triumphant Live Aid set at Wembley Stadium in 1985, which is generally regarded as one of the greatest performances of all time.

Along the way we see them compose such all-time classics as Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, and Another One Bites The Dust. We see them rock their way around the world. But we also watch Mercury as he rises and falls, grappling with his identity, his sexuality, the contradictions of his nature, and, finally, the sad realisation that he's not long for this world.

It's futile and pointless to complain about what's not in the film, although I've probably been guilty of that in past. The real question is whether what's in the film works or not. And for the most part, it does.

There are some typically naff biopic bits - people say bizarrely portentous and foreboding things, incredible events are condensed into impossibly tight time frames, and there are some terribly exposition-heavy sequences to fill in the gaps in the narrative and set up the next scene. It all dials up the melodrama more than is actually necessary.

But when it's on song - which is often - the film sings sweetly. The actors playing the four members of Queen (Malek, Lee, Hardy, and Mazzello) have great chemistry and do a decent-enough job of looking like they're really playing and singing. The atmosphere around the band is largely one of fun and humour, which elevates much of the film.

The stand-out is Malek, and while it's doubtful he's doing a large amount of the singing, he certainly replicates Mercury's moves and is an effective showman. His performance is also genuinely good, covering the highs and lows to ensure Mercury comes off as a real person and not a caricature.

Much of this comes down to the writing too. Mercury's sexuality treads a fine line between overwhelming the story and being underplayed, but it works well. The screenplay ensures the Queen frontman isn't defined by just one aspect of his story, making for a well-rounded character.

Considering what became of Mercury, the film is surprisingly buoyant. It doesn't shy away from the heavy stuff, which is where the emotion of Bohemian Rhapsody comes from, but the general tone is one of celebration. This comes through in the multitude of musical moments, the songwriting 'eureka' instances, the band banter, and, best of all, the magnificent recreation of (most of) Queen's incredible Live Aid performance, which provides an incredibly moving coda to the film.

It's worth noting that the context given to this triumphant gig is fabricated, but it's a great example of how things can be moulded to say more than the truth did. Live Aid becomes the perfect way to memorialise the band and elevate Mercury to legend status.

We can bitch and whine about what's not in Bohemian Rhapsody and what got changed, or we can sit back and enjoy the music and the way the film honours Mercury, Queen, and their incredible legacy. I would much prefer to do the latter.

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