REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (M18)
136 minutes/Opens Nov 1/3.5 stars
The story: This biopic of British rock band Queen and their frontman Freddie Mercury opens and closes in 1985, at the group's triumphant Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium. In between, the film portrays how Freddie Bulsara (Rami Malek), a young man of Parsi Indian ancestry, becomes the lead singer of the struggling band Smile, with original members guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy).
If this film were a rock concept album, it might be a fantasy-adventure about a boy from a village who sallies forth, armed only with raw talent and a sense of destiny, to find his fortune. He falls in with a merry band of seekers and - you know the rest.
This entertaining and extremely likeable slice of rock history is about as wholesome a story as one can wring from the story of Queen. But then, they are a wholesome band that, unlike, say, their counterparts Led Zeppelin or The Who, did not foster legends about rivers of Jack Daniels swallowed, televisions hurled from hotel windows or tour-bus orgies.
The film earns an M18 rating for its depiction of Mercury's homosexual liaisons, but otherwise, the action seen on screen merits a PG13.
Care is taken to coat everything with a layer of light, self-deprecating comedy. It is as if Mercury or May are on the couch, regaling a talk-show audience with an anecdote. So when a pre-band Freddie (Malek) is shown hauling luggage at Heathrow, for example, it becomes a physical skit.
To show how broke the lads are at the start, they are shown maudlin, at the side of the road nursing an ancient tour van back to health. When they are locked away making their ambitious A Night At The Opera album, their attempt to create new sounds becomes a sketch about jerryrigging studio furniture.
This much niceness about men who would become titans of the music industry and multi-millionaires might seem a bit much - it comes close to humblebragging - but the touch is light and effortless, except for segments that try to work in the Bulsara family's Parsi teachings. These feel stiff and out of step tonally with the rest of the film.
The story struggles with containing the outsized story of its frontman within the context of a band, but in the end, it just gives up. As much as its promotional materials claim this to be the story of Queen, if it had said it was the story of Mercury, no one who saw the film would bat an eyelid.
The film's two-hour-plus running time would be considerably shorter without the musical segments, a fan-service inclusion that sees the band perform their biggest hits. These are done with both emotion and an eye to dropping factoids about how each song was created.
Malek disappears into the character of Mercury - first as the teen Farrokh, who adopts the more English-friendly name Freddie, and later as the gay man cautiously approaching, then wholeheartedly embracing, his sexuality.
More than mimicry, this is a subtle, full-blooded portrayal that trusts Malek to use his physical gifts - a glance, a gesture - as much as it relies on dialogue.
Watch the trailer at youtu.be/BjHxIWZXnFM