BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), Lucy Boynton (Sing Street), Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse), Joseph Mazzello (Jurassic Park), Gwilym Lee (Midsomer Murders), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), Allen Leech (Downton Abbey), Tom Hollander (Pride & Prejudice), Mike Myers (Shrek)

Director: Bryan Singer (X-Men)

Writer: Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything)

Runtime: 2 hours 14 minutes

Release Date: 24 October (UK), 2 November (US)

Unless you’re a real spoilsport, I think it would be very hard to find someone who doesn’t like Queen. They are one of the greatest rock bands of all-time, producing some of the most memorable and everlasting tunes of the entire genre, and frontman Freddie Mercury is an icon of not only rock n roll but for LGBT representation and AIDS awareness as well. A biopic of this legendary group is long overdue and has been in development hell for some time, with a previous version with Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury falling apart due to conflict with the surviving band members. But the trouble didn’t stop even once in production, with Bryan Singer (who is still credited as director due to Director’s Guild of America regulations) being fired mid-production and replaced with Dexter Fletcher. With all of this hullaballoo going on behind-the-scenes, it’s a wonder Bohemian Rhapsody has made it to the screen at all.

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Bohemian Rhapsody is in every department a conventional rock biopic. We see the humble beginnings of the band, their fateful meeting with Mercury, their tremendous rise to stardom, all the in-fighting and backstabbing that led to their break-up, and the mixture of tragedy and friendship that brought them back together. From beginning to end, the film is essentially a high-budget dramatisation of an episode of Behind the Music, and even if you aren’t very familiar with Queen’s history it’s easy to see where it’s all going. But all of this expected rise-and-fall narrative is ultimately just a backdrop to the more interesting story at the heart of Bohemian Rhapsody: an exploration of the isolation of being closeted. Contrary to the coy marketing, the film very much explores Freddie Mercury’s sexuality and the effect it had on his professional and personal life. The film paints a vivid portrait of a man struggling to come to terms with himself, drowning himself in excess and ego to compensate, and yet still feeling alone at the end of the night. It’s a tragic but sympathetic and ultimately uplifting journey, one that doesn’t go as far into detail as it could have gone and sugarcoating what’s there, but it goes far enough to get the message across and deliver a compelling if somewhat censored experience.

Now the entire film could have easily fallen apart if the right actor wasn’t cast as Mercury, but in Rami Malek I think they’ve found the one and only person who could do this role justice. Not only is the physical resemblance uncanny, but Malek nails Mercury’s distinct flamboyant mannerisms without turning the man into a caricature. But when not cavorting about on stage, there’s a great subtlety to his performance and the way he handles the more emotionally wrought moments are especially gut wrenching. It’s hard not to think what Malek could have done if given a version of the film that really dove into the craziness and depravity of Mercury’s self-destructive lifestyle, but what’s presented manages to be effective purely based on his performance and he is the main reason to give it a watch.

The rest of the cast is perfectly serviceable, with some pulling their weight whilst others fade into the background. Gwilym Lee does justice to Brian May without particularly wowing, Ben Hardy’s Robert Taylor falls a bit flat, whilst Joseph Mazzello’s John Deacon is fun but given very little to do. Lucy Boynton works as a good emotional anchor as Mercury’s close friend Mary, but I wish just as much care had been put into Mercury’s other lovers. The only obvious misstep in casting is Mike Myers as record executive Ray Foster, whose performance feels like it’s been ripped from a far more farcical version of the story and is only here so they can make a meta joke about Wayne’s World. At least his screen time is brief.

Where Bohemian Rhapsody really struggles is that it definitely feels like a film caught between two directors, even though neither of them are directors known for having a distinctive style to begin with. In what feels like an effort to mesh the visions of Singer and Fletcher, the final product doesn’t particularly read as either director, and as a result it lacks a lot of visual flair. The staging and cinematography feels rote and uninspired, with the writing and acting driving the scenes forward far more than any clear direction. The film visually only really comes alive during its concert scenes, especially the finale at Live Aid, but outside of this every scene feels like its been decked out in the contents of a flamboyant 1970s/80s dress-up box. Luckily, and as you’d expect, the soundtrack is chockfull of Queen’s music, keeping the film alive and exciting even when what’s going on onscreen starts to grow tedious. Then again, it also misses some pretty big ones too (no “Princes of the Universe” or “Flash”) and some of the song placements are a tad on the nose; I mean, could they have picked a more obvious and overbearing scene to pop “Who Wants To Live Forever?” on in the background?

Bohemian Rhapsody fulfils its checklist as a Queen biopic, delivering a feel-good movie that hits all the expected notes without particularly innovating otherwise. Rami Malek’s incredible lead performance and all of the storytelling revolving around his personal character journey is enough to make this worth seeing, and those concert scenes just about could justify doing so on the big screen. But outside of this, the film offers you very little you couldn’t get out of just reading up on the true story and listening to Queen’s albums. Perhaps with next year’s Elton John biopic Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher can get a full opportunity to flex his weight with another giant of British pop. What about Bryan Singer? Well, if any of the stories that have crept up around him in recent years are even remotely true, I don’t think he deserves to make anything else ever again.

FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10

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Author: Jenny Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer. Also, I'm trans. That shouldn't be important, but it kind of is.

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