**** NB – Contains SPOILERS (as if you do not know this story by now!) ****
It was a long time from concept to completion but this film, depicting the rise of British rock band Queen to major success has proven to be a runaway hit in the cinema since its release in October 2018. The production was far from smooth; the makers had initially wanted Sacha Baron Cohen (best known for his comic character Ali G) to play singer Freddie Mercury, but that did not happen owing to Baron Cohen’s desire for a more ‘gritty’ portrayal of the Queen frontman than that intended by the band’s surviving members. Things didn’t get moving properly until late 2015 when the screenplay was approved; it wasn’t until another year had passed before the cast and director were installed. Even then, production was troubled; director Bryan Singer was removed from the project with about two weeks of principal photography still to shoot, amid reports of his repeated absences from the set. Even when Singer was actually on set, there were further allegations of clashes with lead actor Rami Malek (portraying the central role of Freddie Mercury). The studio appointed Dexter Fletcher to complete the filming, although on the finished film Singer has retained the director’s credit. (Fletcher is given an ‘executive producer’ credit)
With all this hanging over it, on its cinematic release not many predicted that the film would prove to be the box-office smash it has become. Still playing in UK cinemas at the time of writing, the film has just been issued digitally (on Amazon Prime) and is about to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s taken me until now to get around to seeing this picture, so better late than never here’s my take on it all.
Beginning with a lengthy opening sequence showing Mercury preparing for his performance at Live Aid, the film starts things off by cutting back to 1970 where the young Farrokh Bulsara is shown working as an airport baggage handler. From here events rattle along at a rapid pace; he attends a college gig by the band Smile; attempting to introduce himself to the band he encounters a pretty blonde (Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton) who tells him where to find the guys in the band. He does so just as Smile’s singer Tim Staffell (Jack Roth) quits, introducing himself to guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Securing the gig of lead singer and renaming the band Queen, the new band (complete with bassist John Deacon, played by Joseph Mazzello) are unveiled, with their new singer taking command immediately. Right there, Queen fans of a certain age will know that it wasn’t quite so simple as that (for instance, Deacon was not their first bassist and only joined in 1971) but , for reasons of trying to cram in a 20-year story into about two hours, the film does take numerous liberties. It jumps forward a year to show the band selling their van in order to raise enough money to make an album, and meeting up with Farrokh’s family where he announces to all present that he is now known as ‘Freddie Mercury’.
The pace at which things develop in the film gives it the feel of a montage, as the band are shown being signed by a record label, making their album, touring and becoming ever more popular. Once again fans will be shouting at the screen, as it shows the group in their 1975 finery, looking exactly like the real band did in the video for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (the song) – while they are shown performing ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ – a song which didn’t come along until 1978! How well you can overlook the lack of chronology like this probably depends on whether or not you were there when this band were active. It goes on to depict Mercury, by now in a relationship with Austin, keeping in contact with her by telephone but becoming increasingly distracted on the road with an attraction to other men.
An amusing sequence follows when the band are actually putting down ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on tape, showing Taylor becoming agitated at the amount of times Mercury wants him to overdub ‘Galileo’ vocals, before there’s a heated discussion with a record company executive (played by Mike Myers) over their insistence on releasing this song as a single. Mercury is shown next in a radio studio, daring the disc jockey (the maverick Kenny Everett, played by Dickie Beau) to play the whole thing. He does so, and the record hits the top of the charts. A rather cheesy sequence follows where scathing reviews of the single taken from the time are shown on screen; a deliberate thumbing of the nose at the critics.
The film goes out of its way in places to show that the band wasn’t just about the singer; showing May in the studio with the band and entourage with his idea which became ‘We Will Rock You’, and in another sequence showing Deacon playing the bass line for his ‘Another One Bites The Dust’. In the film’s timeline, Mercury is shown to become more difficult the more successful they get, almost getting into a fight with Taylor. He’s then shown to become increasingly detached from both the band and Austin, being offered a solo recording deal and being led by his personal manager (Paul Prenter, played by Allen Leech) further into the murky world of the New York gay clubbing scene. Once again, the chronology is questionable, after a scene showing Mercury becoming agitated at a press conference by repeated questioning of his personal life by journalists, he quits the band after another altercation with Taylor over his secret signing of a solo deal. In reality, Taylor had put out not one, but two solo albums before Mercury even made one, so the sight of the drummer reacting angrily on screen is more for dramatic effect. It also skates over the 1984 period when the band released the album ‘The Works’ and toured, though they are shown making the ‘I Want To Break Free’ video which, as the film depicts, went down badly in the United States. This is one thing which jarred with me particularly, since I saw Queen live for the first time during this period and their world tour was actually a success, culminating in their performance at the inaugural Rock in Rio festival in early 1985. Many will also note that their collaboration with David Bowie (which yielded the song ‘Under Pressure’), is ignored, even more glaring since that single was their only other number one hit besides ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ itself.
Prenter is shown to be indulging Mercury’s excesses, and when the management attempt to reach the singer they are repeatedly fobbed off by Prenter. Mercury finds out that they are trying to contact him to take part in a huge charity concert, and angrily fires Prenter. He is shown watching a television interview with Prenter, who is shown to betray the singer’s confidence with revelations about his personal life (in actual fact, Prenter did this by selling his story to a tabloid newspaper). A contrite Mercury meets up and reconciles with his bandmates, and they sign up for the concert (which as everyone knows, was the Live Aid concert). It is here that the biggest and most jarring chronology discrepancy comes up; in the events of the film it is during rehearsals for this show that Mercury is diagnosed with the AIDS virus which eventually claims him. In reality, he was not diagnosed until 1987 after the band had completed their final world tour, but as this movie has been building up to that climactic pay off of the Live Aid performance, the script has this brought forward. Again, whether you can accept that or not probably depends on whether you were around to see this band at the time. As someone who was lucky enough to see Queen on three occasions including their final live show ever at Knebworth in 1986, I found this extremely difficult to accept.
The Live Aid sequence is the part which not only makes this film worth seeing but arguably saves the whole thing – they went to a lot of trouble to get this one right. The clothes, the stage setting, the details right down to the Pepsi-Cola branded paper cups are absolutely bang-on. Malek as Mercury owns this sequence, he replicates every single move Mercury made on the 13th July 1985 and his performance is so accurate (indeed that of all four actors as the whole band) that every Queen tribute band currently playing live will be thinking that they had better up their game. In actual fact, the vocals for the musical sequences are either taken from Mercury himself or are replicated by singer Marc Matel, whose voice is uncannily similar. That sequence was shot first, and as such credit must be given where due to Singer’s direction, he has recaptured the magic of the original 22 minute set beautifully. The film ends at this point, having depicted the band start from a college band into a huge success, then with excess taking its toll before redemption is found via their career-defining Live Aid performance. The band’s later career is not covered at all, though some songs are used as background in the film itself.
Given the runaway box office success of the movie, it’s pointless giving a verdict since the audience has already spoken – however, despite the film’s many imperfections if you are a fan of this band or indeed have any interest whatsoever in them, you should get the DVD if you haven’t already seen the movie. The fact a film about a band which had its heyday decades ago still can pull in an audience the way it has speaks volumes about Queen’s enduring appeal, truly one of the great rock bands. Whether this is the film which does justice to such a giant of rock however, is for you to decide. For me, it was a pleasant if cliched biopic, which would get three inflatable guitars, but the performance of the actors portraying the band (uncannily accurate in all cases), plus the Live Aid sequence earns it a fourth. If you do buy the DVD or Blu-ray, the whole performance as recreated for the movie will be presented in full as an extra. The original 1985 performance by the actual band is of course worthy of as many inflatable guitars as you can blow up, and that’s always available to view on youtube.
Bohemian Rhapsody (cert 12A)
Director: Bryan Singer
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Screenplay: Anthony McCarten
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel