By Bo Nicholson – Managing Director
"I am a romantic, but I do put up a barrier around myself, so it is hard for people to get in and to know the real me" — Freddie Mercury
The role of the biopic is not to tell the ins and outs of every detail of a person’s life, it is to find the very essence of that person. To expand on the persona that has already been presented to the audience, many of whom are loyal fans or followers of the person being covered. The best biopics don’t cover a large portion of a person’s life; they pick a significant time that displays the crux of this person’s challenges and the core of their humanity.
As a filmmaker wishing to cover the life of Freddie Mercury, you’re spoiled for choice. You could tell the story of how he rose from being a weird college student from a conservative family to the most potently talented vocalist of his generation (executed brilliantly in a movie like Nowhere Boy). You could really hone in on the making of his magnum opus, Bohemian Rhapsody (consider Love & Mercy and the way it shows Brian Wilson’s creation of Pet Sounds). Perhaps you could cover the difficulties of coming out as homosexual as a high-profile person at a time when homophobia was rampant. Maybe you could tell the story of how ego controlled his decision-making in the early 80s, leading to the break-up of Queen and subsequent reunion for THAT Wembley Stadium performance for Live Aid. You could even cover his premature death from Aids, where he inadvertently became the poster boy for the disease at a time when homophobia and Aids hysteria would have been crippling for a man of his profile. Bryan Singer, experienced filmmaker that he is (he has directed The Usual Suspects and a bunch of X-Men movies), made the foolish decision to try and cover all of it in one film and, thus, we are still no closer to truly knowing Freddie Mercury.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a convoluted 134 minutes (!!!) that not even the director cared about (Singer was known for simply not turning up to set at times, such was his dislike of the film). A viewer’s enjoyment of Rhapsody lives and dies with their level of fandom for Queen. If you are a mega-fan you’ll likely forgive the familiar treatment of the life and times of Mercury, the beyond-corny attempts at humour or gravitas, the rearranging of significant life events to serve an overly-sentimental and contrived narrative driven by his biased bandmates who helped bank roll the project and the over-reliance on your enjoyment of their biggest hits. In fact, there’s really only 2 reasons to watch Bohemian Rhapsody at all if you’re anything less than a mega-fan; THAT Wembley concert and the performance of Rami Malek.
Without question the best thing about this movie is Malek, who only got the part when Sacha Baron Cohen quit after Queen members (and executive producers) Brian May and Roger Taylor wouldn’t let their presence go unfelt. After all, it was their story as much as it was Mercury’s (according to them). This casting accident proved a happy one, as Malek delivers an imitation so brilliant that his own star can do nothing but rise. He embodies his walk, his stage presence, his speech and, to an extent, his voice. But, try as he might, Malek doesn’t capture the essence of Mercury because the film never dares to slow down and take a moment to consider his inner workings. Malek did the best that he could with the material available to him, but a script with the nuance of a sledgehammer is an impossible tool to work with.
It also fails in the humour department, with so many winks and nods to the audience that it’s simply unbearable. Consider the scene where the band are trying to persuade the label executive, played by Mike Myers, that Bohemian Rhapsody should be the single, while he argues for other weaker songs that are shorter. Then he comes out with possibly the worst slice of dialogue I’ve heard in a biopic in the last decade; “No one is going to be head-banging in the car to Bohemian Rhapsody”. Process that. Mike Myers said that. The guy that popularised the idea of head-banging in a car to that song in Wayne’s World. Whoever got paid for that gag should have their cheque torn up. You just know that conversation didn’t go that way. You know the sad part? The real conversation was probably far more interesting. In fact, when compared to the actual life of Freddie Mercury, it’s hard to imagine it being possible to make a film this dull.
True Queen fans will probably find themselves won over by the end, with what feels like maybe a little too much time spent on the Live Aid concert, but all your favourite Queen songs get played or mentioned throughout the hefty runtime and the whole thing is dripping in unearned sentimentality by the end. Some people will like this movie. But don’t be mistaken, these people would have been just as happy if they just played Queens Greatest Hits (CD 1) in surround sound. Their approval doesn’t necessarily mean the film has any merit.
It’s big without enough fun and it’s loud without anything meaningful to say. What you know about Mercury now is exactly the same as when you leave the cinema; we learn nothing new about the man. Maybe he was right, maybe he is difficult to truly know. Or maybe he, and the talented actor that portrayed him deserved a lot better than a film lacking in craft, honesty and genuine insight.
Seems Bo wasn’t a fan. Did he get it right? Let us know in the comments below.
Bo Nicholson is a Managing Director at The Pioneer Australia. His favourite Queen song is obviously Bohemian Rhapsody and his favourite biopic is Groundhog Day, which he firmly believes is based in reality.