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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Is 'Bohemian Rhapsody' worth watching? It's heavy on the rhapsody, but light on the bohemian

The Freddie Mercury biopic is thoroughly entertaining, but lacking in depth

Rami Malek’s performance is thoroughly on point and doubtless heading for awards season recognition.
Rami Malek’s performance is thoroughly on point and doubtless heading for awards season recognition.

In 1975, Queen famously split with their record label, EMI, over the label’s refusal to release the now-classic Bohemian Rhapsody as the first single from their album A Night at the Opera. EMI claimed that the six-minute-plus song was too long for a single. The label may well have levelled the same accusation at the gestation of new film Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic of the band’s flamboyant lead singer Freddie Mercury.

The movie was originally touted in 2010, with notorious prankster Sacha Baron Cohen taking the lead role. Ben Whishaw also had his turn in Mercury’s signature white vest and leather jacket, before the 2018, Rami Malek, version of Mercury finally took to screens. Directors came thick and fast, too. Gone Girl’s David Fincher and The King’s Speech’s Tom Hooper were among those attached to the project before it eventually released as credited to Bryan Singer, although Dexter Fletcher actually took over directorial duties mid-shoot.

The convoluted inception of the movie can be seen in the final product, which, like much of Queen’s music, is something of a mishmash. While Queen’s musical meanderings became seminal, however, essentially inventing the “rock opera” genre, the movie doesn’t quite know what it is.

It’s very entertaining, that’s beyond doubt, with Queen’s music featuring heavily, Malek’s performance thoroughly on point and doubtless heading for awards season recognition, and some impressive staging – in particular the full-scale replica set of Queen’s epic 1985 Live Aid gig. But the movie is, to steal a line from Queen, more a “little silhouette” of the conundrum that was Mercury than an in-depth look at one of rock’s more intriguing characters.

This can probably be explained through that convoluted production process. Baron Cohen reportedly left the project as he wanted to offer more of a look at Mercury’s life than the rest of Queen, who said they wanted family-friendly fare, and were adamant that the film should not sully their former bandmate’s legacy, while the producers were adamant on a PG-13 rating.

Mercury’s life, it’s fair to say, was anything but PG-13. Hence, his personal life is given a somewhat cursory treatment. There have been some cuts to the version we see in cinemas here, but Fox insists the cuts are mere “seconds,” and they don’t jar when watching, so it does seem that this is a problem with the film itself rather than the UAE release.

None of this is to take away from what is an extremely entertaining rock opera. If you love Queen’s music, you’ll love this film, but the music is definitely the strong point, and despite Malek’s five-star portrayal of the frontman, you can’t help feeling a little short-changed. His complex marriage to Mary Austin, his numerous extra-marital dalliances, his early life as a Parsi immigrant to the United Kingdom, and his often strained relationship with the bandmates who lived in his immense shadow are all rather side-tracked in favour of a middle-of-the-road rock biopic that takes the route of hagiography over serious character examination.

Gwilym Lee (as Brian May), Rami Malek (as Freddie Mercury), and Joe Mazzello (as John Deacon) in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo / Supplied
Gwilym Lee (as Brian May), Rami Malek (as Freddie Mercury), and Joe Mazzello (as John Deacon) in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo / Supplied

The supporting cast feel more like extras in the Freddie Mercury one-man-show, but even that one-man-show leaves us feeling that, given the subject matter of one of rock’s most fascinating and complicated icons, we could perhaps have learnt a little more than the rock legend cliches we’re offered.

Malek offers an utterly compelling performance as the Freddie Mercury we know, but the constraints of the film and that all-important PG-13 rating leave no time for the Freddie Mercury we don’t know, and that’s what we’d love to have seen more of.

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Read more:

Rami Malek on the challenges of playing legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury

A closer look at Rami Malek following his Emmy win

The man who schooled Jack Ryan on the region

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