Before Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) and his four-octave vocal range phonated onto the scene, Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) started off in a band called Smile. Never heard of them? Neither had I until now. Formed in 1968, Smile had nominal commercial success under Mercury Records until lead singer and bass guitarist Tim Staffell abandoned ship to join another band, Humpy Bong, in 1970.
And praise be that he did, for that left some shoes to be filled. As it transpired, those shoes were pretty snug for Staffell’s successor: his friend and the band’s biggest fan, Farrokh Bulsara – later, of course, to become the legendary Freddie Mercury.
Bulsara persuaded May and Taylor to continue and joined as lead vocalist. And with the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazello) the following year, the mighty Queen was born. With the flamboyant Mercury overshadowing Staffell’s legacy, they became one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
Queen’s rise to fame is detailed in the 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody by Bryan Singer – who was incidentally replaced by Dexter Fletcher pretty far down the line after a number of unexplained absences from the set. Despite the behind-the-scenes irregularities and theatricals, Bohemian Rhapsody succeeds in honouring its subject matter with both decorum and proficiency. It celebrates Mercury’s life with a respectful enthusiasm, eager to remain somewhat carefully subdued while portraying a public figure who was quite the opposite.
But Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t wholly anchored on Mercury. Rather, it traces Queen’s history, kicking off in 1970 as a vivacious Mercury meets and transforms the muted Smile and closing with Queen’s Live Aid performance in 1985.
What often makes a film’s narrative gripping is watching characters as they struggle and eventually manage to surmount hurdles. Though, there’s none of that here, which is a real shame. While Mercury’s tale is captivating and emotive, Queen’s success is depicted as fairly plain sailing. A screenplay needs a bit of choppiness to keep the audience’s appetite whet from start to finish, but writer Anthony McCarter fails to deliver in this respect. A cheerful story for sure, but one with depth? Not really.
The Mercury thread that runs throughout Bohemian Rhapsody is infinitely more interesting, even if it doesn’t take centre stage. The best moments are undoubtedly those that feature Mercury, played expertly by Malek (Mr. Robot). The actor had been “terrified” that he wouldn’t do the role justice but knew that he’d be mad to pass it up. His concerns were unfounded because the 37-year-old powerhouse unreservedly brings it in a fiery, frenetic explosion of colour and sparkle. No performance in the film can be judged as bad, but Malek steals the show.
The film’s focus is a little erroneous at points, particularly in reference to Mercury’s sexuality and health, which are merely touched upon when they really deserve much more screen time. It’s all just a bit too guarded. And that’s suspicious. Like an advertorial in a newspaper or magazine, it’s quite clear that there’s a lack of true candour in Bohemian Rhapsody. I suspect that May, Deacon and Taylor played some role in keeping it that way – understandably, I guess. Whatever the case, it’s too saccharine to pack a real punch.
Thanks in equal parts to Malek’s electric performance and Queen’s fabulous music, Bohemian Rhapsody has just enough bang to drown out the noise made by the film’s mistakes. All in all, it’s worth a watch. Just be prepared for some pretty surface-level stuff.