Clearly your preconceptions can influence your judgements and enjoyment of a movie. For this reason I tend not to read reviews if I know I’m going to see a film but sometimes it is hard to avoid getting an idea of what people think. I was aware of the criticisms of Green Book for example. I knew it had upset some people for its inauthenticity and sure enough when I saw it these problems burst out of every scene. Similarly I was aware that Bohemian Rhapsody had not been well received by the critics. ‘Trite’ and ‘mundane’ were the kinds of words being used to describe this film. ‘Anodyne’ said The Evening Standard, ‘an abomination’ said The Times while Time Out, in one of the more positive write ups, described it as ‘a series of gossipy but harmless rock-world anecdotes shaped into something vaguely coherent’. I wasn’t expecting to love this one.
Still, the film has been a huge commercial success and has just won four Oscars, including one for lead actor Rami Malek who seems to be the one element that everyone consistently rated. With the movie out for rental then and completely disregarding what curiosity did to the cat I gave it a go. I was prepared for some frustration and a fair amount of tutting but I wanted to know what the fuss was about.
Converse to my expectations though, and pleased after Green Book to find that I am capable of individual thought, I really enjoyed it.
I had hoped it might have some cheesy charm or maybe it would humorously highlight the pomposity of Rock music, deliberately or otherwise; a sort of This Is Spinal Rhap. Actually it is better than that though. The concerns of the critics are largely fair, it does whisk through historical events without pausing as if it’s an entry in Cinipedia and the drama is not particularly sophisticated. There are a few key things that it gets absolutely right though.
First off it manages to show the genius behind what Freddie Mercury and Queen did. It is such a shame when you see a film about people who excel in art or science and they don’t manage to show why their work was so incredible and why they were so celebrated because of it. Amadeus is the benchmark here but so many other movies, films like Hitchcock and First Man, fail in this respect. Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t. Not only do you get to see why Mercury was such a singer and such a stage presence but you are also able to appreciate the musical skill of the rest of the band, especially Brian May, and how they were able to connect with their audience so magnificently.
The portrayals of May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon are also really nicely done. Malik is getting the accolades, which are deserved, but this is more of an ensemble piece than you might have anticipated. This is like a double act but with one guy playing it large and three others being the straight man. The range of resignation and exasperation that comes from the three actors playing the rest of Queen; Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Jurassic Park’s Joseph Mazello, are wonderful and the film wouldn’t work without them. Crucially you get a real sense of their friendship here as well.
Speaking of which the next element that works really well is Freddie’s long relationship with Mary Austin, the woman he was once engaged to and left half of his fortune to after he died (including half of all his royalties so this film is earning her millions). You really do get to see how this woman must have grounded him and why he held her in such regard. Austin in real life has never made a big thing of her connection to Mercury and remains a private person and somehow the film showcases her while totally respecting this.
Finally and importantly the film is fun. This does come at the expense of depicting the anguish Freddie Mercury must have felt with a culture not open to his sexuality, a press that judged him and with his illness. In the end though the music of Queen was fun, their concerts were fun and Mercury wanted people to be having a good time, having a good time. I’m sure he would have wished to be remembered as an entertainer and this film is entertaining. Bohemian Rhapsody could have definitely been a better film but in the end I think it’s a good tribute to the man, the band and the decades it covers.
Having said all of this there is one small thing I’d have done differently. The story doesn’t chronicle Queen’s creation of one of the most audacious concept albums of the 20th Century. I’m not talking about A Night at the Opera, they cover that. I’m referring to the movie soundtrack to Flash Gordon. Seriously that record is weird. To know where that came from would be the real insight.
Bohemian Rhapsody has done a Greatest Showman and is still showing in cinemas by the time it has come out for home viewing so you catch it on an evening out or in, and I kind of recommend that you do.