Movie 'Bohemian Rhapsody' fails to deliver that Queen kind of magic
The film about Freddie Mercury and his band has finally been made, but it doesn't quite hit the high notes, writes Tim Robey
Everyone loves Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody - with its staggering heft and operatic kitsch - as a go-to karaoke number, but it's an overambitious one to try at the burnt-out end of the night: such renditions usually get grisly, when everyone's too drunk or hoarse to carry the tune. The story of Freddie Mercury and his band, which has finally reached us on film, plays out a little like that. It strains effortfully for the top notes and vaguely growls the low ones. Still, there's a solid middle range it manages to belt out.
It's a case of winning us over against the odds. Long in production - it was announced way back in 2010, when Sacha Baron Cohen was to star - the film has also been fraught with on-set problems, after Bryan Singer was fired from directing it late last year in the midst of renewed sex-assault allegations, which he denies. Dexter Fletcher took over the reins to finish it off, but Singer retains the on-screen credit.
Heaven knows how many screenwriters came and went after Peter Morgan's original involvement, but the script the film has wound up with, credited to Anthony (Darkest Hour) McCarten, takes us on a very safe, straight-ahead biopic tour from the formation of the band in 1970 to their moment of greatest global recognition, at Live Aid in 1985.
Watching Mercury in action, played in a ballsy but hit-and-miss performance by Mr Robot star Rami Malek, obviously needed to be the main draw here. He moves well, and sometimes looks a fair bit like Mercury in profile. But he's a doll-like version of a megastar, and the voice never seems quite right: too affectedly plummy, for all the obvious effort he's put in. Physically, the problem is that Mercury had surprising agility given his beefy build, where Malek looks like an exotic trained dancer, and the fake teeth are too fussily distracting.
Mercury's louche, perspiring showmanship on stage is pretty well done, especially in the rousing, film-saving finale we've got in store. When it comes to the singing, though, the film has a nervous habit of chopping up Malek's performances, cutting to bandmates. And the whole point of Freddie Mercury was that you couldn't take your eyes off him.
The script has plenty of drama to play with: the clashes with bandmates, Mercury's hidden sexuality, his relationship with the "love of his life" Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, not given much) and eventual diagnosis with Aids.
The film keeps repeating a favourite mantra of not trying to be something you're not, and in fairness, it has heeded its own advice. For all the shortage of visual poetry or true inspiration, it's unpretentious and crudely watchable as it ticks off the greatest hits. The recording session for Bohemian Rhapsody itself, for instance, was always going to be a must-have, with Freddie demanding Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) climb ever higher with that "Scaramouche!" "fandango!" falsetto.
WATCH | The trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody
Joe Mazzello has some good, sidelong moments as bass guitarist John Deacon, but the best of the whole quartet is Gwilym Lee, who has Brian May's adenoidal manner and dogged work ethic down pat. "Any questions about the music?" he asks despairingly at an overcooked press conference, where the hungry hacks, sniffing blood, are only interested in Mercury's sex life.
You'd hope this film, in 2018, could be a little franker on Mercury's gay relationships than a 2010 stab starring Cohen might have been. Then again, Cohen, a much better physical match for Mercury, made Brüno, so who's to say?
Even the good-ish, semi-funny, or semi-moving scenes here have an issue: because of the sense of missed opportunity bedevilling the whole thing, they feel like sketches for great moments that might have been. Only at Wembley, as the band blows everyone away for Live Aid, do we feel the infectious blast of the real Queen sorcery, and the camera locks itself on Malek, who gets to strut his stuff fulsomely at long last. The final hurrah for Mercury's genius, this huge, hubristic spectacle lets you grant his troubled film a pass: at least it keeps on fighting to the end. - The Daily Telegraph
• 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is on circuit.