7 Nov 2018

Review - Bohemian Rhapsody

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 7 November 2018

If the facts don’t fit the producers’ idea of a story, they get, shall we say, tweaked. Real people are combined to make them “movie characters”, events are conflated into “movie moments”, the leads are given lines that nobody says – at least not without expensive script-writers.

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Photo: Supplied

And nowhere is this more the case than in showbiz biopics.

Biopics of famous musicians and entertainers also stumble at the description “inimitable”.  
A documentary can investigate why the unlikely figure of an upper-middle class kid from Zanzibar became one of the biggest popstars on earth.  A fiction version can only imitate how he behaved when he got there.  

That’s the challenge of the film Bohemian Rhapsody.

Long before Bohemian Rhapsody came out it was clear it was weighted down by expectations. Should singer Freddy Mercury be portrayed as a victim of anti-gay prejudice in the repressed Seventies?  Or was he up against old-fashioned racism?

Meanwhile there was an equal amount of pressure from the many millions of Queen fans, and, possibly most critically, the surviving members of the band.  

Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor have kept a very firm grip on the band’s legacy over the years, and they’re listed as producers of the film.

So it’s safe to say the story told in Bohemian Rhapsody is “true enough”, rather than obsessively so.  

It opens with Freddy – played by American actor Rami Malek with unconvincing dentures – meeting Brian and Rog at a pub.

Actually I was pleasantly surprised that the writers – Kiwi Anthony McCarten and Brit Peter Morgan – resisted the temptation to do an Oliver Stone version of the Queen story. One tortured genius, three boring losers, that sort of thing.

Instead they concede that all four members, including bass-player John Deacon, contributed hits to the band.

The rest of the band is remarkably well-cast – occasionally better than Rami as Fred because they don’t have to do it past ridiculous false teeth.

But they are often required to say stuff like this.

Nobody in the history of pop music has ever said the line: “We’re not being played on the radio?  We’d better get more experimental”.  

Also fudged over was the fact that in the Seventies, you didn’t necessarily have to be played on the radio, let alone the dreaded Top of the Pops, to make it.

But Queen weren’t quite the doomy outsider band being trumpeted here – certainly not compared with the likes of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin.

Instead they were pop triumphant. Queen in many ways were British pop at its most ridiculously camp and royal.   

So turning them into rock cult figures with shadowy secret lives is perhaps a bit of a stretch, even if it does make a more appealing movie story.

But the truth - a phenomenally successful group with an unbroken string of hits and an endearingly flamboyant front man, cruelly cut down by disease – was seen as somehow not enough.

The film Bohemian Rhapsody does its best – building up Freddy’s relationship with his first girlfriend Mary, and a bit of drama with his straight-laced family. 

It also tries to make the success of their rococo magnum opus a bit less likely.

But 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was hardly the first lengthy single to make it into the charts. In fact it owed its place in the history-books to its genuinely ground-breaking video, which kick-started the MTV era.

There’s also an attempt to suggest that Freddy was bullied into a life of excess when he decided to come out.

This is pretty unconvincing. Back in the pre-Aids Seventies, wild parties were pretty much de rigeur. It’s just that Queen did them better than most.

Bohemian Rhapsody is clearly aimed at casual visitors to the story of Queen – and if the story is at the expense of the facts or the music, well that’s the usual fate of a rock biopic.

If you want to see some pretty accurate impersonations of Queen – the covers band version, if you like – well, here it is, and it seems to be doing surprisingly well for itself.

If you care what actually happened, you might have to piece it together yourself, from the wide range of old Queen footage available on You Tube.  

I know.  Too much trouble, I agree.

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