Review: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)


Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Directed by: Bryan Singer | 135 minutes | biography, drama | Actors: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Meneka Das, Ace Bhatti, Priya Blackburn, Dermot Murphy, Dickie Beau, Tim Plester, Jack Roth, Max Bennett

“Is this the real life, is this just fantasy…” At the first sounds everyone will immediately recognize ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen. Only the band members themselves initially believed that the mini-rock opera composed by Freddie Mercury would acquire such legendary status. The song would be too complex, too pretentious and also too long at six minutes (radio stations usually cut songs after three minutes) and what the heck was that text about? However, the public paid little attention to the lukewarm reactions of the critics and went for the ax en masse. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ broke sales and turned Queen – especially his charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury – into a rock legend. No other Queen song so powerfully reflects the man Mercury was: one moment grand, bombastic and theatrical, the next moment fragile and small. A man who fascinates you and immediately embraces you, but with whom you will never get to the heart of the matter, just like you will never fully understand the song, even though you grab it right away.

For a biographical film about Queen and Freddie Mercury, one could not have come up with a more appropriate title than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2018). The production was quite difficult. As early as 2010, Queen guitarist Brian May announced that there were plans for a film about the band’s history; comedian Sacha Baron Cohen would be in the picture for the role of Mercury. A brilliant choice on paper, but in practice it turned out to be more unruly. In the summer of 2013, Cohen finally dropped out due to ‘creative differences’. The controversial actor and comedian did not fit the ‘family-friendly’ set-up that May and Queen drummer Roger Taylor had in mind. Ben Whishaw was briefly in the picture as a replacement, and Dexter Fletcher was supposed to take the director’s chair, but due to problems with the script, both dropped out. It wasn’t until the signing of Anthony McCarten (‘The Theory of Everything’, 2014 and ‘Darkest Hour’, 2017) as a screenwriter that things started moving forward. Bryan Singer (‘The Usual Suspects’, 1995) was hired as director and Rami Malek was cast as Freddie Mercury. Finally it was possible to film, but the unrest remained. The behavior of Singer, who sometimes simply didn’t show up on set, caused a lot of irritation and he was even replaced by Fletcher so that the film could be completed. Because most of the work was already done by then, it is not he but Singer who gets the credit for directing.

Given all the chaos, it is a miracle that the film was finally released. The head and tail of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is formed by the legendary performance of the band during the charity concert Live Aid in 1985. From there the history of the group is explained. We meet the young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), as Freddie was actually called, in 1970s London. He studies, has a part-time job as a baggage handler at Heathrow, but he dreams of a career as a musician. In his spare time, he goes to a Smile gig, which includes guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). When their frontman switches to another band, Freddie offers them his services. When bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) also joins, it means the start of something beautiful. Mercury’s catchy lyrics and compositions catch the eye of manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and his assistant Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who land a record deal for the band with EMI; the four outcasts, as they call themselves, are about to become world stars. Privately, Freddie does not sit still either: he dearly loves his girlfriend Mary (Lucy Boynton), but also appears to have a weakness for men. A struggle that will tear him apart for the rest of his life.

As mentioned, May and Taylor had a firm hand in the creation of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (Deacon withdrew definitively from the music world at the end of the nineties). Their main criterion was to portray Mercury in a dignified way, with respect for who he was and what he has meant to the music industry. The result is that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is very neatly colored within the lines, while Mercury was someone who was anything but average and good-natured. The charismatic frontman was a barrel of contradictions, elusive and mysterious, but anyone who hopes this film shows the man behind the legend will be disappointed. Of course, all the highlights of Queen’s history are covered. But between all the tours and iconic hits you want to know what goes on in Mercury, why he makes certain choices and who he is. We learn even less about the other band members and other characters and Mercury’s relationship with his parents is very sparsely elaborated. As if May and Taylor gave orders not to dig too deep. In addition, the events and the order in which they occurred are creatively redirected so that they fit just that little bit better into the story.

That lack of depth is somewhat compensated for by a dynamic performance by Malek, who throws his whole soul into the role and knows how to imitate Mercury particularly accurately in his mannerisms, attitude and energy on stage. He doesn’t sing himself (thank God, because Mercury’s voice cannot be matched), but as a stage animal he comes eerily close to reality. In the blistering eleven-minute final chord on Live Aid, Malek pops off the screen. Of course supported by the ambiance and the music, which is still standing like a house. Because ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is above all a celebration of Queen’s impressive discography. ‘Love of My Life’ still gives many people goosebumps, ‘We Are the Champions’ roars along so wonderfully and ‘The Show Must Go On’ – especially with a view to how it ends with Mercury – still hits hard today. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ unfortunately did not become the biographical film that provides new insights into the man behind the legend, but thanks to a powerful performance by Malek and that indestructible music, this superficial film still has a high entertainment value.

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