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Mercury magic saves the day

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Rami Malek is astonishing as flamboyant Freddie in Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody

IT was never quite clear where the much-hyped Queen biopic, stewing away in development hell for some years now, was going; frankly, having seen the finished film, I’m still at a loss.

Guitarist Brian May announced the project almost a decade ago, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s casting as
flamboyant frontman Freddie Mercury set the internet on fire; from there on out, however, little but bad news escaped the rumour mill, as creative disputes and personality clashes hampered the production (culminating in Baron Cohen’s renouncing the project in 2013). The great sticking point, it seems, was a philosophical one – it lay in precisely how a film would go about honouring the band’s legacy. Queen’s star burns almost as bright today as it did in their ’80s heyday, yet it’s difficult for modern fans (especially those born after Mercury’s untimely death) to appreciate what an oddball
proposition it made for in its early days – no pop outfit since has toyed so blithely and triumphantly with different styles and genres (from prog rock to disco to opera). As Rami Malek’s pre-fame Freddie tells a room of unbelieving suits in this picture, Queen are simply “four misfits … playing for other misfits and the outcasts right in the back of the room.”

More pressing, of course, was the question of the film’s tone – Mercury’s debauched reputation sits decidedly at odds with Queen’s legend as the ‘nice guys’ of rock ’n’ roll and it was uncertain which among these two narratives the anticlimactically-titled Bohemian Rhapsody would focus on. Although as Freddie-centric an account as we might have anticipated, the movie sheds fair light on the other band members, showing them to be dynamic artists in their own right; likewise, it treads carefully where Mercury’s tumultuous personal life is concerned, dwelling mostly on his relationships with Mary Austin (played by Lucy Boynton), Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) and Paul Prenter (Allen Leech).
Early previews were derided for their cackhanded treatment of the frontman’s sexuality, yet commendably little of the same tone-deafness is to be found here – Bohemian Rhapsody addresses the matter frankly and tastefully, though it skirts, in the process, some of the more
‘outrageous’ aspects of Mercury’s persona (this is, after all, a man said to have hosted parties featuring dwarves, nude waiters and black-faced minstrels).

Rami Malek’s performance is, for my money, one of the most astonishing on-screen transformations attempted since Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning turn in Lincoln. The Mr Robot star has Mercury’s mannerisms and accent down to a tee, and the palpable sense of ‘blink-and-you-couldn’t-tell-them-apart’ is only enhanced as Freddie grows into his moustachioed, uber-butch, punch-the-sky phase; Malek’s not so much the man’s imitation as his doppelgänger.

In its final act, the film itself undergoes an equally dramatic makeover, abandoning its docudrama pretensions to become a flat-out concert movie – pains are taken to replicate the virtual entirety of Queen’s Live Aid set, a spectacle that’s bound to send shivers up your spine. Regrettably, little of that same vigour and confidence is to be found in prior scenes, with Bohemian Rhapsody settling for rock movie cliché in its efforts to plumb the band’s epic appeal. In documenting the genesis of their hits, it falls back on crudely mechanical methods, as Freddie’s initiative converts a few chords or a page of poorly-scrawled lyrics into instant classics. The interplay between the main cast makes for an occasionally charming watch, but the screenplay throws them into situations that will come across contrived to anyone who’s seen a few movies – we get more than a few sceptical, money-minded execs, overenthusiastic groupies and long dark nights of the soul. Though Malek’s Freddie talks the talk about eschewing formulas, the film never quite finds its own voice, limping through a purely televisual first act and a midsection that’s strikingly innocuous.

Still, Malek’s performance iselectrifying, and they’ll always be a time and a place for these tunes…

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