Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody – fine performances, acting and music tied to a ga ga story

Bohemian Rhapsody is a mess. One single film is simultaneously trying to be biopic of Freddie Mercury, tell the story of a song, and replay a concert.

Given the production nightmares throughout the long pre-production period and the filming (with director Bryan Singer replaced by Dexter Fletcher before principal photography had finished), it’s amazing that the film is such a good mess.

This is not a Mamma Mia-style film version of We Will Rock You, a fictional story told around the songs. Over 134 minutes, we’re introduced to Freddie Mercury’s family, the origin story of the band, his long-lasting bond with Mary Austin, experimental recording sessions, chart success, strained creative relationships, a brief solo career, the band’s relaunch at Live Aid and his diagnosis with HIV/AIDS. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten manages to squeeze a lot of facts and emotions into the script, along with much of the band’s back catalogue of hits.

Rami Malek is superb as the exotic Mercury, oozing style and passion. Fitted with prosthetic teeth, his lips, jawline and facial features make him the centre of attention before he even opens his mouth. His performance captures the intensity of the lonely Queen front man who struggled to like himself and to find people worthy of his trust.

Bewigged Gwilym Lee is visually like Brian May, the second strongest figure in the band of four. Joseph Mazzello is costumed with suitably kiddish outfits to play bassist John Deacon, while Ben Hardy takes his seat behind Roger Taylor’s drum kit. They get a lot of screen time, fair because there were four personalities in the band, but depriving cinema goers of more time with the man they came to see. A Star is Born is a better film with less caricatured performances.

Tom Hollander adds a touch of humour as lawyer turned manager Jim Beach, while Dermot Murphy pulls off a good Bob Geldof and Dickie Beau’s Kenny Everett is in the best possible taste.

There is an absurd obsession with Mercury’s cats in an edit which often uses entirely unnecessary effects (like the shot which zooms into and out of the tour coach) and adds artistry which detracts from the musicians. Newspaper films show paper flowing through printing presses; musical films show recording studios. The endless cycle of dubbing and overdubbing borders on becoming tedious as the film tries to explain the complexity of the “six minute quasi-operatic dirge with made-up words”.

The final recreation of Queen’s 20 minute set at the Live AID concert in Wembley is self-indulgent and marries the cast’s acting with the 1985 live recording. While Mercury has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, the film’s producers should be less certain of winning over critical audience members. The cinema lights don’t come up until the last moments of the credits, a chance to play another couple of classic tracks.

Ultimately, a far better film might have centred on Mary Austin and told the remarkable story of her life-long relationship with the singer that survived a broken engagement and continued to this day with her inheritance of 50% of his estate. Lucy Boynton plays the faithful friend, giving the knowing glances and soft touches that portray the deep friendship that lingered beyond what he could ever have thought he deserved.

Now playing in most cinemas.

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