Director: Bryan Singer/Dexter Fletcher
Cast: Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Joseph Mazello, Ben Hardy, Lucy Boynton, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers
If you’re ever asked to name one of the best rock bands the world has ever seen, many bands will likely come to mind. Chances are though that the one band that would be mentioned more than any other would be Queen. Formed in 1970, the original four-piece group was made up of lead singer Freddie Mercury, lead guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon. Over the next fifteen years they stormed the charts worldwide with their progressive rock and unique style. But their success was not without its hardships. Becoming one of the world’s most popular rock bands, not just then but even still today, is not something easily come by, meaning there must be some kind of story worth putting on the big screen. Has Bohemian Rhapsody done the band, particularly Freddie, justice, or will another one bite the dust?
In 1970 young Farrokh Bulsara, later to be known as the legendary Freddie Mercury (Malek), joins Brian May (Lee) and Roger Taylor (Hardy) in their band Smile, their original lead singer and songwriter having just quit. Once they find bassist John Deacon (Mazello) they become Queen, a name decided upon by Mercury. After performing to small but adoring crowds, they are signed to a record company who give them (mainly Mercury) a lot of leeway yet still try to control the up-and-comers. As their journey to the top begins to speed up, Mercury’s personal life (his sexuality in particular) is subjected to media scrutiny, with the press more interested in what Mercury gets up to in private than the band’s music. Things start to get tense between the band members, particularly between Mercury and the rest of the band, leading to disagreements, arguments and big decisions.
This production suffered some setbacks in its journey to the screen. May had been trying to get this film made for years, and originally Sacha Baron Cohen (of TV’s Ali Gi and the Borat and Bruno comedy films) was set to play Freddie. Baron Cohen may be something of a dead ringer in many ways for Freddie, but it was his comedy background that left some thinking he wouldn’t be able to do Freddie’s story justice in the right way. He was then replaced with the stupendous Rami Malek. Malek, it’s reported, had issues with director Bryan Singer, as many working on the production seemed to, with further reports of Singer’s unreliability during filming coming out. Ultimately Singer was fired two weeks before filming was due to end and replaced by Dexter Fletcher, who oversaw the rest of filming and post-production, with Singer getting the director credit and Fletcher receiving an executive producer credit. Something major must have gone on as 20th Century Fox also terminated their business with Singer’s production company, Bad Hat Harry. It seems that the drama behind the scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody mimicked that of the squabbles faced by the band themselves. Fortunately, all this nonsense didn’t seem to affect the film as a whole, which is actually rather a sturdy story with some fabulous performances.
Writers Peter Morgan and Anthony McCarten have both been involved with writing films and television shows based on real people before, including Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything for McCarten and Frost/Nixon, The Crown and Rush for Morgan. As such, their experience gives the film’s story a very genuine feel. This is of course helped along by the involvement of May, Taylor and the band’s longtime manager Jim Beach (all credited as producers), so it’s reassuring to know that the majority of the film is likely true to life, though probably with some dramatic license here or there. The band’s story isn’t anything to hugely write home about at first, which makes the first half an hour feel a little rushed. But once the film gets into its groove (quite literally) and the music starts to play a part itself, it becomes something so grandiose it’s as though Freddie had created it himself. His own personal story is a familiar one to many people, battling with inner demons and being surrounded by parasitic sycophants and ‘yes’ men. As one of the film’s taglines says, his story is their story, and it’s mentioned a couple of times in the film that they need each other, which becomes quite apparent as events unfold. The band’s familial bond resonates off the screen, the understanding that they’re not a band if they’re not all together making perfect sense. At times the cinematography represents the artistry of Queen in its own way, and in others it captures the dynamic of the band members, giving that sense of love at times and frustration at others.
Bohemian Rhapsody is by no means a perfect film. As mentioned, the initial half an hour feels rushed, and at times the performances are a tad wooden. But what (or who) shines brightest in this film is Rami Malek. He captures Freddie so convincingly well that you’ll get those goosebumps you might normally get from listening to or seeing Freddie perform in videos. We’ll never know how Baron Cohen would have fared as Freddie, and that’s ok, because Malek absolutely smashes his performance, particularly the quiet inner anguish Freddie likely suffered in keeping so much to himself, using his ‘Freddie Mercury’ persona to hide behind. Malek as Freddie will make you laugh and make you cry, all whilst thoroughly entertaining you. Behind Malek as May, Taylor and Deacon are Lee, Hardy and Mazello, all giving performances that are great for the most part, particularly Lee, but at times are typically English in that they’re quite stiff, particularly Hardy who is still a relative newcomer to film (anyone remember him in Eastenders?). Credit where credit’s due for their musicianship and taking on the legendary Queen members though. Lucy Boynton is simply lovely as Freddie’s one-time girlfriend and love of his life, Mary Austin. An important figure in Freddie’s life, Boynton ensures Mary is portrayed correctly as the rock that she was for Freddie. Mike Myers pops up as record exec Ray Foster (a nice little Wayne’s World easter egg), Tom Hollander as Jim Beach and Aiden Gillen as Queen’s manager before Beach, John Reid. Along with Allen Leech as essentially the villain of the piece, Paul Prenter, they all round out a decent supporting cast that not only show how ruthless the music (and entertainment) industry can be, but also how tough the band had it at times.
We often hear Queen’s music played so much that they easily fall into the background. Bohemian Rhapsody beautifully pulls the band very much back into the foreground, allowing Freddie to shine again and remind us why they are one of the biggest and best bands to ever grace this planet. Controversy aside, Singer and Fletcher have created something that does appear to do Freddie and Queen justice in telling their story. It culminates with their 1985 performance at Live Aid, a performance often cited as one of the greatest rock performances of all time. From the set to the direction and the actors’ performances, it recreates the actual event wonderfully well down to the smallest detail (check out the original here) and is the perfect way to end the film. It proves the enduring legacy of Queen, their music continuing to enthral new audiences. No matter what went on behind the scenes, the show did indeed go on, and now we have a fantastic film that will remind us just why we love the band and their music so much.