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25 October 2018

The cartoon unreality of Bohemian Rhapsody reveals how Queen see themselves

This is a group who wrote their songs not for personal reasons but with tens of thousands of people in mind.

By Kate Mossman

“I was born with four additional incisors. More space in my mouth means more range.” One wonders if this is how Freddie Mercury really persuaded the band that would become Queen to take him on as lead singer. In Bohemian Rhapsody it does the job, in one of several short scenes of mega-exposition, the best of which comes close to the end, when Freddie tells the band he has Aids, gets a boyfriend, comes out to his parents and plays Live Aid on what appears to be the same afternoon. Teeth figure a lot in the movie– the actor playing Freddie, Rami Malek, carried a set of falsies around for many months to get into character, and Roger Taylor, the script makes clear twice, was studying dentistry when they all met. Brian, of course, was doing astrophysics: “I guess that makes you the clever one,” says Freddie. “I guess so,” says Brian, one of the film’s producers.

Brian May’s speaking voice (he is played by Gwilym Lee) is so shockingly accurate, I thought he was dubbed with the real thing – and he could be, for who knows what sonic trickery Roger and Brian, the executive music producers, got up to in the studio: Malek’s singing is blended with Freddie’s in parts, and with a Canadian singer called Marc Martel. I just left the film, and my head is still spinning. Its script is an alchemy of the bizarre and the banal. There are some physical impressions so accurate they give you chills. There is some deeply dodgy poetic licence. And there is, predictably, very good use of music. The greatest challenge of any rock biopic, and the reason so many of them fail, is getting the rights to the songs. If the band make the film that’s not a problem. But leave a rock band as private and controlling as Queen to tell their own story and you have another problem entirely. Bohemian Rhapsody lost spangly directors and stars along the way, and at one point looked like it would never be made. Sacha Baron Cohen, who was once down to play a very tall Freddie, was later described by Brian May as an arse.

Bohemian Rhapsody is such a big deal that the 20th Century Fox fanfare at the start has been re-recorded by Brian on guitar. It has been deeply, madly anticipated and judging by the first reviews, it appears to be a flop. But, like looking at a self-portrait by a famous artist, the film reveals something of how Queen see themselves – this is a group who wrote their songs not for personal reasons but with tens of thousands of people in mind; who talk of brand rather than band these days, and refer to their music as “part of the wallpaper of life”.

Growing up highly attached to Queen, my brother and I worked out our adolescent anxiety via regular Queen dreams, where the members would be just “wrong” for some reason – too fat, perhaps, or unpleasant, or performing poorly on stage. The cartoon unreality of Bohemian Rhapsody will feel, to many fans, like being trapped in a Queen nightmare, but I’m convinced the unreality is entirely deliberate – some kind of continued diversion, perhaps, away from the truth. Roger Taylor, also a producer, is happy to have given himself a characterisation so dumb that he doesn’t know who Galileo is, writes songs the rest of the band think are crap, thinks Freddie’s moustache makes him “even gayer” and reacts to his Aids news with a laddish “you’re a legend”. In real life, his relationship with Mercury was touchy-feely close – but who cares, in a film where the band take the backseat to the product. “The only thing more extraordinary than their music is his story” says the tagline, of Freddie: in one mega-exposition, Freddie’s stern father Bomi Bulsara tells the entire band the story of Parsee persecution at the hands of Muslims in Persia, around a stiff Sunday lunch. “Really? That’s terrible,” says Brian May, in the same sincere manner you get him talking about asteroids in real life, at on stage events in the Science Museum.

Against this odd script, Rami Malek draws his portrayal of Freddie with energy and tenderness: the relationship with his lifelong friend and one-time fiancee Mary Austin is particularly sweet, capturing the love a gay man, who is not yet sure he is gay, and a girl can feel for one another: their early chemistry is found in shared clothing, closeness and the desire to protect. Malik’s bug-eyes take a while to get used to, but his funny voice – colonially clipped, crackly, toothsome – is something of an achievement, as is his light-footed, ballet dancer skip: he looks a lot like Freddie from the back. There is a touching scene where he flits around his new Notting Hill mansion explaining to Roger Taylor that each of his cats will have its own room. The scene is ruined when Taylor says he can’t stay for dinner because he has to get back to the wife and kids: it’s so entirely stupid – and one of the strange moments where the film suggests that Freddie’s gayness (about which the band have always been protective in interviews)  was an alienating force pulling him away from the band.

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It wasn’t until recent years that Queen decided to tell the story of Paul Prenter, Mercury’s personal manager, and his corrupting influence. In 1987, Prenter went to the Sun with stories of Mercury’s sexual exploits, revealing that two of his lovers had died of Aids. In Bohemian Rhapsody the relationship with Prenter – a clear-eyed, soft-spoken, un-aging Irishman who hangs around from 1975 onwards with no clear motive – becomes the crucible within which Mercury is destroyed. Prenter is seen seducing him away from Mary Austin, tempting him into promiscuity in the Munich gay scene, getting him into disco music (he’s therefore directly responsible for Queen’s critically loathed Hot Space album…), engineering solo album contracts and even – astonishingly – blocking calls from Bob Geldof inviting Freddie to play at Live Aid. There is a recreation of a TV interview in which Prenter refers to Freddie as “a frightened little Paki afraid to be alone”. I’m still looking for that online.

The film has had criticism for whitewashing Mercury’s private life, but I didn’t feel there was much whitewashing going on here. Aside from the tragedy of his illness, did things really go so wrong for Freddie Mercury? The Prenter stuff lends it a bitter tone, disempowering the singer and turning him into a coked-up, lonely lapdog. It also allows for several big liberties to be taken with the Queen story. The film claims that Freddie’s solo aspirations alone nearly broke the band (in fact, they’d all done solo work at the same time). Most bizarrely, in one scene he literally begs for his job back, and for the chance to play Live Aid in 1985. “I’ve been an idiot and I deserve your fury,” Freddie says. “What’s it going to take for you all to forgive me?” When they hastily pull together their performance, they claim not to have played live in “years” because of Freddie’s antic behaviour. In fact, in January that year, they’d played their biggest ever concert, to an estimated 350,000 people in Rio De Janiro.

Mercury officially told the band he had Aids over a quiet dinner in Montreux in 1989. In the film, it happens during the Live Aid rehearsal in 1985 (his diagnosis actually came in 1987). The point, dramatically, is to add heft to the band’s most famous concert footage – the film ends with a long, rather impressive recreation of their Live Aid set. But did it need the dodgy rewrite – a terminally ill Freddie with his tail between his legs – to remind the audience how good they were at Live Aid? Perhaps it just felt important for Queen, who nowadays like to say that their career has two phases, Freddie and post-Freddie. When the credits roll with real footage of the band, everyone at my screening stayed in their seats, as though relieved to watch the real, familiar Freddie face and hear the music in pindrop Dolby surround sound. Most of them will have gone off, Spotified and Youtubed the band, and that’s exactly the point of the enterprise.

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