What, you ask, is the point of the biopic? Ostensibly, it’s to illuminate, to add legitimacy to scurrilous gossip, to artistically (or crudely) excavate a life. But there’s another kind of biopic, one that has very little to do with the truth, more chronology, and that type is the brand extension; a form of consolidation sanctioned by either the living subjects, their estate, or the interested parties they left behind.
A case in point might be the recent biography of Stephen Hawking, made before his death; pompously and misleadingly titled The Theory of Everything. With a title like that you’d expect to get the complete picture; in the event it was a film that stopped where it might of started, on the cusp of the alleged abuse of Hawking by the nurse he married. This may read as tangential but Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher‘s biopic of Freddie Mercury and Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, seems similarly afflicted.
Allegedly, Sasha Baron Cohen, once attached to play the talismanic lead singer of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s rock band, wanted a warts and all expose of Queen’s frontman; a portrait that would have included all the lewd behind-the-scenes debauchery known to millions but curiously suppressed by fans of Mercury’s sublime, soaring, sentimental, elegiac rock, married to and backed by Brian May’s heterosexual twanging, Roger Taylor’s masculine drums, John Deacon’s family friendly bass guitar, and a lot of romantic, female friendly synth.
Members of the band, credited as music consultants, for which read creative controllers, vetoed this realist take, instead endorsing a sanitised version of events that would retain the broad appeal of their music.
Bohemian Rhapsody the movie is fundamentally a proxy for Queen itself. It’s colourful, sentimental, flamboyant, silly, humorous, and calibrated for mass consumption. At no point does it resemble a sincere attempt at dramatising the inner life of Farrokh Bulsara; the man who became the mercurial Mercury. It is on occasion, closer to Spinal Tap than Oliver Stone’s The Doors; a film that comes dangerously close to being entirely constituted from moments that have been retrospectively remade as symbolic or iconic. All biopics are history written backwards of course, this one reads like Freddie Mercury’s Wikipedia page, rather than a serious attempt to shine daylight upon magic.
One can’t blame the filmmakers entirely. Queen’s music is magic, kinda. When the frontman’s this good and the tunes this fucking great, why despoil the purity of the pop with illicit backroom sex, seedy hookups, and the AIDS threat of the 1980’s? If you’re the kind of music fan who counts the Flash Gordon soundtrack and Highlander amongst your favourite Queen artefacts, it’s unlikely you’re temperamentally primed for handjobs in toilet cubicles, vigorous sodomy, and the matching hairstyles of Brian May and Anita Dobson. You want your Queen movie to be like your Queen albums, a little bit saucy, a little bit sad, a little bit funny, and bursting with moments of joyful exuberance. This is what you get – a movie that sweeps you up with the force of its soundtrack.
If Queen don’t want Mercury scrutinized too closely, they don’t want to be probed either. The movie treats the surviving members as one-dimensional background artists. It’s a film at its best when showcasing the drive, creativity and heart of Mercury, and the bands collaborative endeavours. One could watch a movie all day about how the foursome put together their most famous tracks. But for the film to be fully satisfying, there has to be the sense that the relationships showcased, and their attendant complications, are real, and neither director can invest the material with enough heft and subtlety to deliver that.
At times it’s like watching a parody of a Queen biography, complete with comic scenes, clueless music executives, duplicitous hanger-ons, the diva who thinks he’s too big for the band but eventually, inevitably, comes crawling back, and the climatic reunion concert. The movie’s saving grace is its leading man, Rami Malek, and his blistering recreation of Mercury’s on-stage performances, both of which capture our memories of Queen with comforting fidelity. Anything unsightly is brushed aside, anything problematic left out, and at no time does Mercury lose our sympathies. He’s flawed in the nicest way; a genius who loved too much, showed self-restraint too little, and gave the largest and most important part of himself to the millions of people who idolised him, quite rightly, as one of popular music’s most rousing showmen.
What would Freddie Mercury have made of Bohemian Rhapsody? One imagines that in what he might have imagined to be the enlightened future, he’d be disappointed at how timid it is; a movie aimed at the type of people he was never one of. What we get is a bright and commercially viable confection in line with Queen’s own creative instincts and identity. The one truth the movie captures is that such tensions, between hedonistic abandon and mass appeal, are what made Queen sing. In that sense, the film is the quintessence of the band it recreates. The show goes on and the world between the gigs remains an enigma.