When it was released as a single, Bohemian Rhapsody was slated by the critics – yet went on to be the most popular commercial record in history. Ben Elton’s Queen musical, We Will Rock You, was panned by reviewers when it was released 16 years ago: today, it’s still packing in crowds the world over. So when the Queen film, Bohemian Rhapsody, was trashed by pretty much every film reviewer in Britain this week, it should not have been a surprise. Nor, for those planning on watching it, a deterrent.
The film is not an expert portrait of Freddie Mercury, but it doesn’t pretend to be, any more than We Will Rock You pretends to be Chekov. The star is the music. We see how it’s written, recorded, argued over, revised and performed. The story is about the band and why they worked. In one scene, Freddie is shown asking his bandmates if they can all get back together for Live Aid. His spell as a solo artist, he tells them, had given him unrestricted command of a whole bunch of people: he was able to tell them to do whatever he wanted. ‘The problem was: they did,’ he says. They didn’t challenge or check him, administer funny looks, shape his songs or give him better ones to sing. A good point, very well made.
There are plenty flaws to pick, for those who are that way inclined. Queen, as a group, is the star with Freddie’s solo career portrayed as a flop. Taylor and May (who were heavily involved in the film) are portrayed as angels. There are parts of the group’s story I’d like to have seen more of, such as when David Bowie heard John Deacon playing a bass riff that led to Under Pressure. Or how they knew that filming I Want To Break Free while doing housework in drag would lose them their American audience – but they went ahead because they thought the video would be a laugh. Very British. Queen’s 20 minutes at Live Aid is billed as the best thing the band ever did, with their own Wembley gig and post-1986 career airbrushed out. There are a few anachronisms that the anally-retentive can get upset about, but to do so would be to forget a fundamental point.
This isn’t a documentary. It’s entertainment, and rather good entertainment. The narrative, the Queen story, is cut short to make space for the brilliantly recreated music: a fair trade-off. The jokes are good, the dialogue sharp. It’s as funny, moving, thrilling (and cheesy) as the music it is celebrates. We see Taylor asking “who was Galileo anyway?”: a reminder that no one, not even the band, ever knew what Bohemian Rhapsody was about. It was not intended to be a Nobel-winning poem: it was not (as has subsequently been written) “affirmative of the nurturant and life-giving force of the feminine and the need for absolution.” It was intended to be fun, thrilling and magnificent. And to Queen, that was enough.
Tom Hollander excels as Jim Beach, the manager. We see Freddie in a press conference, loathing the idea of having to justify and explain music – which, he thinks, speaks for itself. And how. We see him back in London telling his wife how he was in a concert in Rio, not knowing if they could understand a word he was saying on stage – and then, when May plays Love of My Life, watching the crowd sing every word. So he conducts them, rather than sings. Like so much in the film, this is powerful because it actually happened (see it here). This is a theme of the film: Queen was music for the crowds, not critics. They wanted guitar solos that they can whistle; anthems (like We Will Rock You) they they can perform. Taylor says in the film that Queen is a group of musicians who had little in common with each other, making songs that don’t fit an oeuvre or formula. Music by misfits, for misfits.
This film is a misfit. It is too cheesy, too flamboyant, too saccharine, at times hopelessly camp, not sufficiently serious or particularly interested in being serious. And that’s precisely why it’s so enjoyable. I watched in the Imax in Waterloo, and looked at the faces of the audience – all smiling. On the way out I heard people comparing which parts they cried at and (in general) saying how glad they were to have ignored the critics. If you go, I suspect you will be too.