Bohemian Rhapsody: Freddie Mercury biopic presents sanitised, conservative view of a rock iconoclast
In researching Freddie Mercury’s on stage movement, actor Rami Malek took inspiration from Liza Minnelli in Cabaret and David Bowie. (Supplied: 20th Century Fox)
After a troubled production (following an equally troubled decade-long path to production), Fox’s Freddie Mercury biopic has finally arrived in cinemas, with Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) strutting into the role of Queen’s fabulous Parsi front-man.
Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody features in the iconic opening scene of 1992 film Wayne’s World.
Although the song from which the film takes its title is now regarded as one of the greatest of all time, record executives were deeply sceptical when Queen chose Bohemian Rhapsody as the lead single for their 1975 album A Night at the Opera.
The band was warned that, due to its unwieldy six-minute runtime, the song would never be played on the radio — never mind its capricious musical progression, or the numerous references to obscure characters like Scaramouche and Beelzebub.
In the film, Mike Myers — disguised by ginger curls and tinted aviators – plays the EMI bigwig determined to quash the band’s creativity. “Let’s stick with formulas,” he admonishes. “I like formulas.”
It’s a canny piece of casting — Myers famously head-banged to Bohemian Rhapsody in the opening scene of the cult 90s comedy Wayne’s World, causing the track to soar to number two on the charts in the United States, 16 years after its initial release.
Having Myers appear in Bohemian Rhapsody as a Queen sceptic is ironic by design.
That the film is constructed in keeping with his character’s bad advice, however, is ironic by accident.
Costume designer Julian Day says Freddie Mercury’s style was informed by time spent in Kensington Market selling vintage clothes. (Supplied: 20th Century Fox)
Bohemian Rhapsody (directed by Bryan Singer but finished by Dexter Fletcher after Singer was fired) is thoroughly formulaic in its depiction of Mercury’s — and Queen’s — rise to fame. It may share a name with the unlikely hit song, but the film possesses very little of its daring.
Like many biopics, it suffers from a surfeit of story and a concomitant lack of depth. Skipping over Freddie’s (or Farrokh’s) childhood in Zanzibar and India, writer Anthony McCarten ushers viewers from the formation of Queen in London in 1970 through to its iconic 1985 Live Aid performance, condensing 15 years into 134 minutes with dogged efficiency.
The film’s strongest scenes are those set in the studio and on stage, where the narrative pauses, and the focus is on Queen’s eminently catchy and propulsive music, and on Malek — who, wearing a showy set of false teeth and a whole lot of spandex, proves thoroughly Mercurial.
Costume designer Julian Day says some of the outfits featured in the film are from Brian May’s personal wardrobe and archives, while others were re-made by the original costume makers. (Supplied: 20th Century Fox)
Dramatised rehearsals and recording sessions offer glimpses into the band’s creative process, as Freddie and guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) massage tracks like We Will Rock You and, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody into existence.
Queen’s 20-minute Live Aid set is reproduced almost in its entirety, and with great attention to detail, for the film’s rousing finale: Malek’s moustachioed Mercury holds court on the Wembley Stadium stage, pumping his fist and wielding his trademark bottomless mic stand with ease.
The film begins and ends with Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium in London. (Supplied: 20th Century Fox)
The veracity that characterises the musical performances in Bohemian Rhapsody does not extend to the rest of the film, however: its version of history is sanitised and tweaked.
Given the debauchery that Queen was known for, the film is conspicuously lacking in both sex and drugs. No doubt this has something to with the fact that May and Taylor served as creative consultants on the production, and band manager Jim Beach as one of the producers.
What little debauchery there is comes with a good dose of moralising.
The film spans a 15-year period in Mercury’s life, from 1970 to 1985. (Supplied: 20th Century Fox)
The real Freddie met his boyfriend Jim Hutton at a club, but Bohemian Rhapsody re-locates their first encounter to his opulent home, in the aftermath of a wild party. Jim (Aaron McCusker) is written into the scene as a waiter, cleaning up after the departed guests. (For the record, the real Jim was a hairdresser.)
Alone, dejected, and seeking attention, Freddie slaps Jim’s behind — but apologises when Jim chastises him. After a chat and a promising first kiss, Jim departs with the words, “Come find me when you like yourself.”
Lucy Boynton (Gypsy) plays Mercury’s one-time fiancée Mary Austin, the inspiration behind the song Love of My Life. (Supplied: 20th Century Fox)
While, in reality, a gay bar brought Freddie and Jim together, Freddie’s proclivity to party gets critiqued here as evidence of self-loathing, and Jim is re-cast as a representative of a more respectable lifestyle.
In any case, Jim — who was Mercury’s partner until his death from AIDS-related illness in 1991 — barely features in the film: the pair met in 1984, and the narrative cuts off just after they get together. (Freddie’s first love and one-time fiancée Mary Austin, played here by Lucy Boynton, takes up far more screen time.)
It’s a shame that Bohemian Rhapsody evinces a formal and moral conservatism so at odds with its gender-bending, boundary-pushing, larger-than-life subject. Even without the sex and drugs, however, at least there’s still plenty of rock’n’roll.