Director: Brian Singer
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten, based on a story by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan.
Runtime: 134 mins.
Australian release date: 1 November 2018
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 25 October 2018.
The creation of Bohemian Rhapsody is mired in controversy, in keeping with the extraordinary life of the film’s lead character, Freddie Mercury, vocalist of the rock band Queen, who headed what was undoubtedly one of the finest stadium acts of the 1980s and whose music was way ahead of its time. If you were around when Queen was topping the charts, then you’ll be aware of the impact they had and the legacy their music has left behind. Mercury’s off-stage life was controversial and so was the movie’s behind-the-scenes production: the original director, X-Men’s Bryan Singer, was sacked for clashes with the cast and crew three months into the shoot and replaced with British actor/director Dexter Fletcher, although Singer still gets sole directing credit. But for all that, Bohemian Rhapsody works and is a fitting tribute to a great artist and a great period of rock ‘n’ roll history.
Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), née Farrokh Bulsara, came from a Parsi Indian background and moved to England from Zanzibar with his family when he was 17. A trained pianist with an amazing vocal range and a long-standing love of Western pop music, he was ideally suited to front a rock band when he became the lead singer of Queen in 1970. The film’s portrayal of his life concentrates on his musical career but also covers his personal life, beginning with his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), whom he considered his rock (she was also his ‘roll’ for several years), and they remained close throughout his life. The band were a de facto family to Freddie until the arrival of Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), assistant to the group’s manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen). Prenter was a destructive influence on the singer, encouraging him in his hedonism and going solo, thus fracturing the band’s bond. It took Austin to bring Freddie back to his senses. The movie is bookended by Queen’s brilliant set at London’s Wembley Stadium in the 1985 Live Aid concert, where they stole the show from all the top line acts on offer, including U2, The Who, David Bowie and Paul McCartney.
Anthony McCarten’s Bohemian Rhapsody screenplay places its emphasis squarely on Queen’s rise to fame and the band’s musical story and doesn’t dwell on the impact of Freddie’s HIV diagnosis. Sacha Baron Cohen was originally cast to play the lead but left citing artistic differences, apparently because he was at odds with band members (and producers) Brian May and Roger Taylor, who didn’t want to concentrate on Freddie’s illness, which they felt was the way Freddie would have wanted it. Indeed, there is a line in the film where Freddie says he doesn’t want to be the “poster boy" for AIDS. Some criticism has also been levelled at the ‘cover-up’ of Freddie’s sexuality, in particular the toning down of the infamous party where, purportedly, dwarves were carrying trays of cocaine on their heads through the throng, and his penchant for leather queens but, to this viewer at least, you’re left in no doubt as to the man’s sexuality. You don’t need a blow by blow account of how he spent his private hours - that’s not what this film’s about (if you’re curious for more salacious details, you can always watch the documentaries - Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender - 2012 and The Freddie Mercury Story: Who Wants To Live Forever - 2016).
Yes, Bohemian Rhapsody is flawed and a bit clunky in parts but Malek’s performance is simply mesmerizing and worth the price of admission alone. You soon forget you’re watching an actor playing Freddie and believe you’re watching the man himself. And the final concert, ahh, the concert. It is absolutely overwhelming, a staggering re-creation of one of the greatest rock performances of all time and an astounding piece of filmmaking and editing. It makes you feel as though you were, no, are there.