A take-over of the 20th Century Fox theme music is afforded to only very special movies, so to hear the famous overture played by electric guitar in Brain May rock god fashion should bode well for Bohemian Rhapsody.
And indeed we open with the preparation for Live Aid, that momentous concert in 1985, when Queen were widely agreed to have stolen the show of all shows and put millions on the final total of charity money raised for victims of the Ethiopian famine.
As the camera pans over the lead singer’s special kit – glittering microphone, bottle of pills, studded arm band – a man in light blue jeans and a white vest prepares to pull back the curtain and strut onto the Wembley stage.
Then it’s flashback to the luggage carousel at Heathrow airport in 1970. I didn’t know Freddie used to be a baggage handler. I did know he was Farouk and from Zanzibar – there’s a statue of him in the capital Stonetown – but it’s interesting to see his flamboyant rebellion is perhaps borne of defying his straight-laced Zorastrian father in the London suburb.
The film skips a familiar, linear path through various crucial moments in the Queen canon – Freddie meeting Brian and Roger at a student union gig, lip sync on Top of the Pops, the name change to Freddie Mercury, meeting a girl called Mary, coming up with the opening bars of Bohemian Rhapsody while in bed under the piano – and so on and on and on.
Undeniably, some of this is fun, in a dress-up, stage musical sort of a way. And Rami Malek is a very good Freddie, even managing some character growth that isn’t really there in the flat script. He’s best in the second half, when Freddie grows his moustache and gets more complicated, sexually and creatively.
The trouble is, the rest of the band are pretty dull. This is probably factually correct – as Freddie points out: May is an astrophysicist, Taylor a dentist and John Deacon (Deeks) an electrical engineer whose preferred outfit is a Mark and Sparks tank top – and they continually try and bring Freddie’s flamboyance down to their level, tutting as they leave his parties.
What will disappoint many modern fans is that the film doesn’t really deal with one of the great secret homosexuals of the 80s – it isn’t that kind of movie, more a palatable family musical without a discernible theme. It’s careful enough to suggest Freddie’s debauchery and drug use, his gay clubs and sexual partners, but it has a priggish moralising tone that makes our lead miserable, isolated and in the wrong, so that he has to apologise to his bandmates.
So while the band are well played and just about get away with the hair and make up department’s best efforts, it’s only Freddie we want to look at – and Malek is terrific, loveable, funny (as far as the script allows) and very cute in all his little outfits, like some action man doll.
Maybe you remember the general shock when Mercury died of AIDS in 1991 – the public could hardly believe he was gay. Which is far more of a shock. How did he get away with it? It wasn’t like he was hiding it. So in many respects that’s the most interesting aspect of the man who sang Killer Queen at the start of his career and The Great Pretender near the end. I’d have liked more a struggle with this within Freddie himself, rather than the tolerant eye-rolling we get from Deacon, May and Taylor.
As for the band, there are the inevitable eureka moments designed to make us feel we’re there for the creation of pop masterpieces – Bohemian Rhapsody, worked on in a farmhouse and featuring hundreds of takes of Roger Taylor singing “Gallileo” as high as he can, gets the lion’s share of behind-the-scenes backstory, leading up to a wooden cameo from Mike Myers as the record company boss turning down a 6-minute track full of operatic nonsense – but it does settle into a familiar rhythm of the band turning their little tiffs into riffs.
As Deacon thrums the very first airing of the bass line of Another One Bites the Dust, they all stop bickering and say “Actually, Deeks, that’s not bad…”. It certainly appeals to Freddie’s growing fondness for the disco club and leather scene. Another studio moment has Brian May inventing the hand claps and stomps for We Will Rock You.
Topped by Malek’s affecting performance, the film is much better when he’s alone, dealing with his loneliness and tortured by his sexuality. It might come across as a sanitised family musical at times, but there’s enough to suggest sex and drugs and rent boys, as well as yearning for a conventional heterosexual relationship, with Mary (Lucy Boynton) whom he “married”.
And then there’s the climax, practically a real-time step for step re creation of the Live Aid performance, in which Malek does one of the all-time impersonation acts, sealing the moment when the actor has practically become the star he’s playing. Because by then, Mercury himself was a just an act, a performance that had overtaken the man. This is no longer a man who wants to break free. On that stage, on that day, he’s properly at home, as is the performance.
I tapped my feet, I sang along to some long-suppressed lyrics. I used to do a pretty good Freddie impression myself, so I was reluctant to be impressed. But Malek succeeds in the kind of magic you can get in the movies, that of blurring the lines between myth, reality and documentary. And, right at the last, this curious costumed impersonation of film finally finds somebody to love.