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Thursday, 8 November 2018

Movie review: Bohemian Rhapsody, dirs Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (2018)

While this movie hits all the right notes at particular dramatic points I felt relieved when it finally ended. At two hours and 14 minutes, it’s a bit of a slog, even given that there are plenty of sequences showing the band playing their instruments and even given that the final sequence takes place at the Live Aid concert that was organised by Bob Geldorf in 1985. The transcendent power of popularity is the real star of this film, and you get lots of scenes of enthusiastic crowds of young people participating in staged shows. In general the movie is a functional production but it’s also one that at times teeters on the brink of encomium.

It’s hard to work out the difference between fact and fiction at times, which is why the movie can appear to be hagiographic, especially in those parts of the movie that involve Paul Prenter (played by a smooth-faced Allen Leech), who becomes the manager of Freddie Mercury (played by a suitably rhapsodic and creative Rami Malek) and – if we believe what we’re being told – takes him away from the rest of the band. Prenter is shown to be behind a shift in Freddie’s allegiances that results in him signing a solo contract with CBS Records.

A bit later it’s 1984 and we’re in Munich. Freddie is already showing signs of the health problems that would eventually end his life, and which were brought on by HIV AIDS. One night his old girlfriend Mary Austin (competently played as a big-hearted young woman by Lucy Boynton) turns up at his house and remonstrates with him for not getting in touch. Freddie responds that he hadn’t received any calls, and it dawns on him, after Mary has left in her cab – she only stays for a few minutes in order to tell Freddie to return to England – that Prenter has not been putting Mary’s calls through to him when she calls. Realising that Prenter has been manipulating him for his own personal ends, Freddie simply walks off, in the rain, promising Prenter that their relationship is over. Back in the UK, Freddie is shown watching Prenter fronting up on a TV talk show spilling the beans on Freddie and publicly revealing his sexual profligacy.

At times like these you can’t really tease out the truth from among all the things that you are shown on-screen. The band is “good”, Prenter is “bad” and the band wins out in the end. It is on the strength this kind of plot device that the narrative so frequently turns in this film, and there are other examples of people getting their comeuppance when they don’t go in the direction Freddie and the band want to head, notably in those parts of the movie to do with Ray Foster (played by Mike Myers), an EMI executive who doesn’t like the fact that the song that constitutes the title for the film, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (from the 1975 album ‘A Night at the Opera’), is six minutes long. He wants something shorter that will fit in with the schedules of radio stations. Foster gets what’s coming to him, too.

What is welcome in this film is the way it does the kind of backgrounding that only biography can do. One thing that is important to understand is that Freddie came from a migrant family; he was born in what is known today as Tanzania to ethnically-Indian parents, and this fact goes some way toward focusing the audience’s attention on the way some of the band’s songs were adopted by marginalised groups (paradoxically, despite their enormous commercial success) as anthems to buttress people’s identities as outsiders. The other thing that is important to understand about Queen is that Freddie was both the catalyst for and the engine of the band’s success, although this thread of the narrative is modulated later in the drama, following the split with Prenter, when Freddie comes back to the band with his tail between his legs. 

It’s hard to question the suggestion, made by the friend I went with to see this film, that it has been made to introduce a new generation of music-lovers to the work of this seminal band of the era of big sound, of names like Sweet and Led Zeppelin who used a mixture of rock and roll and big, soaring melodies coupled with innovative studio mixing techniques designed to fill in the gaps between tonic moments to create a fuller sound experience for the audience.

There are endless close-ups of Freddie’s face that are meant to serve the purpose of punctuating the movie with moments of pathos, as the lead singer of the band discovers truths about himself, about life, or about people around him. One moment of quiet reflection can serve to illustrate the kinds of insights that Freddie was capable of. He is talking to a man who has been hired to cater for a party Freddie has just held at his big London house. The two get to talking, and Freddie admits that his life sometimes gets out of control, observing that it is the times between tonic moments, the interstices between moments of heightened drama or of individual fulfillment, that are so difficult for him to negotiate. Hence the drugs and alcohol. This is a truth that many people don’t realise until much later in their lives (Freddie is still in his thirties during this scene) and it was enough for me, to take this away from this movie. A movie that can deliver even one insight must be counted as some sort of success.

In the cab on the way to the place where I had agreed to meet my friend, the radio was tuned to Smooth FM, a local radio station, and I listened to the British band Thompson Twins singing their 1984 hit ‘Hold Me Now’. This was followed by a 2016 song titled ‘Say You Won’t Let Go’ by British singer James Arthur. Love songs seem never to go out of fashion.

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