‘They’ are calling Bohemian Rhapsody the critic-proof film. If not quite universally panned then certainly universally ‘meh’-d in critical circles, the film is, several weeks after release, still playing to big numbers at screens across the country. And so it was in darkest Hastings where, persuaded by my elder son, we took our seats in a well-attended mid afternoon showing. And how was Bohemian Rhapsody received? Well, that’s easy to answer. The ending was greeted with a round of applause and, as the lights went up, it became obvious that a sizeable portion of the audience were crying. Or to put it even more succinctly, as a young woman said to her friend: That was the best fucking film I’ve seen all year.
The disparity between critics and reception should surprise nobody and it almost certainly won’t surprise the remaining members of Queen. It’s an act of delayed revenge that sees the adoration that greets the release of Bohemian Rhapsody (the song) in Bohemian Rhapsody (the film) overlaid with damning critical comment from the time, the kindest of which calls the song ‘adequate’. Or ‘meh’ in today’s parlance.
Let’s talk about what this film isn’t. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an honest retelling of the life of Freddie Mercury and the musical development of his band, Queen. But if you’re the kind of person who wants such a thing you’re probably not likely to be a fan of Queen anyway. Not really. Queen, and obviously Mercury in particular, were always about the show. And that’s what you’re getting here. This is the life of Freddie Mercury and the musical development of the band Queen which, with a cursory regard for established facts and details that are already pretty well known, wants take you on the kind of ride that the best Queen songs do.
The culmination of the story is Live Aid. If you know, or remember, anything about Live Aid it can be summed up as: “Give us your fecking money”, the opening announcement, Phil Collins playing a wrong note … and Queen. Every other band or performer who was there will need to refer to a wikipedia page to convince anyone now. Not Queen. And they returned a year later with their triumphant Wembley shows which were captured in a rather legendary episode of The Tube. So, somewhat incredibly, the sight of a nation unified around the clapping section of Radio Gaga is not some fantasy moment, it actually bloody happened.
The rest of the film? A smarter man than me would already be going “is this the real life or is this just fantasy”? Let’s just say that it’s going to take the kind of drugs that Freddie is on during his brief foray into a solo career for me to believe that that’s how some of the most heard and loved songs of the late twentieth century came into being. But who gives a shit? It’s probably close enough, and it’s damn well how they should have come into being. Enjoy the ride.
And, if you love the music and you’re happy to go with it, Bohemian Rhapsody is a great ride. Rami Malek has taken all the plaudits and he more than deserves them. His Freddie Mercury isn’t a shallow impersonation, it’s a perfect study of the man. The other band members are harder to judge but the roles are nicely defined and simply done: Roger Taylor is a ladies’ man and wit, Brian May thinks about things and has feelings, and John Deacon is quirky but genuine. Lucy Boynton makes the most of her role as Mercury’s muse turned girlfriend turned rock. And the rest of the cast perform their parts as either heroes or villains with gusto. Shades of gray there are not.
After a troubled production history, Bohemian Rhapsody is surprisingly coherent and breathtakingly confident. And, if you’re swept along, the emotional turns towards the end are surprising and genuine. [Slight spoiler] I’m not remotely ashamed to say that when Mercury tells his bandmates that he has AIDS that my eyes started to glisten nor that by the end (it’s pretty much a straight line from that point to the Live Aid finale) I was one of the ones who the lights up revealed had been, maybe, crying just a tad. A tad? If I’d had mascara it’d have been all over my cheeks.
My expectations were low. I was unimpressed by the trailers and I nodded along with the reviews. And the thing is: those reviews are right. By any objective measure this is far from being a great film. But then, I guess, Queen were never about objective measures. Bohemian Rhapsody (the song) really is a six minute bewildering pile of nonsense. And yet, it’s also, emotionally honest and hits you right there. And so does the film.