Memo to self: if you want to know about the life and times of an artist, avoid biopics. And if you really want to know about Freddie Mercury, read a book – read several – before you watch the film. Unless, of course, you are already a fan, in which case you will go for the music and then alternate highs and lows as the film alternates between mass-market nonsense narrative, and brilliant performance.
We are, of course, talking Bohemian Rhapsody, the life and times of Freddie Mercury, which delivers a glorious, exciting, foot-stomping reprise of pretty much every major Queen track you remember – and a few more besides.
And that is its strength: not just that it plays the music; but that original band members Brian May and Roger Taylor were intimately involved as executive music producers.
“It's the music, stupid” is a pretty basic slogan which should be tattooed indelibly on the forehead of any director attempting such a project: and the very good news is that here that appears to be the case. There is plenty of music. In many instances entire tracks are featured as opposed to the snatches and extracts that lesser movies have been known to opt for.
And because the film is bookended by the Live Aid concert at which Queen played to an audience, worldwide of maybe 1.5 billion people, there is room for plenty of music. Massive kudos to the directors who allowed this to happen. Although, those aware of Hollywood machinations will also be aware that while much of this movie was delivered by Bryan Singer (whose name remains, as director, on the credits), it was completed by Dexter Fletcher, who took over some way into the filming after Singer stepped down due to sexual abuse allegations.
As for the film that just happens to take place in the gaps between the music, there is the performance and there is the narrative. As story goes, there is a difficulty: and that is that the rise of Queen is for the most part without drama; not entirely respectable – what megastars ever are – but rather more domesticated and scandal-free than, say, the Stones.
The real drama, as well as most of the quotable quotes, is provided by lead singer Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), which means that no matter how hard it tries to widen its scope, this film is inevitably Freddie's story.
After an initial outing as not very successful rock band Smile, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) are on the verge of giving up. Then they meet Freddie, and things start to get better fast. Freddie pushes them to make an album, which is a success. They hook up with EMI A&R manager John Reid (Aiden Gillan) and his slimy sidekick Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Freddie falls in love and into bed with BIBA salesgirl Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton)
All is good, until Freddie gets delusions of grandeur, loses his way and for a time, splits with the band.
That aspect of the story arc – a There-and-Back-Again parable - is altogether too neat. It is clear that the writers are trying to make a point about Freddie's need for a family in which he can ground himself. Queen provide that family: all goes well as long as he remains attached, starts to fall apart when he goes his own way. And hey presto! They are reunited just in time for a triumphant return at Live Aid.
Meanwhile, Freddie seems to be pursuing much the same arc with his real life family: estrangement and reconciliation, also just in time for Live Aid.
Troubling, too, is the film's treatment of the track Bohemian Rhapsody. It is there but, by making much of how it was hated by the music media, a clever point that the film is attempting to make about the tyranny of the mainstream is undone by its own cleverness.
It's too tidy. Irritating, too – though one guesses this was done to get past the censors in countries still not very LGBT friendly – is the near complete erasure Freddie's bisexuality. Yes: he says so – but is promptly over-ruled by Mary, who pronounces him gay. By leaving out what happened post-Live Aid, the film misses large and significant chunks of Freddie's life, including six years of his fight with AIDS.
And then there are other awkwardnesses around the gay narrative. Mary, his straight partner, gets top billing. Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), Freddie's partner for the last years of his life, is mostly absent. And while Prenter is very obviously set up as villain of the piece, there is more than a whiff of focus that is is the evil gay lifestyle, as opposed to the evil gay, that lead Freddie astray.
Let it go. The narrative IS nonsense. But the music is brilliant and there is loads of it. So, too, are the performances. Rami Malek, especially, brings an energy and a command to the role worthy of Freddie himself. But pretty much everyone in this film delivers: there is not a dud performance amongst them.
If you've not yet seen it, make some time to do so before it goes away.
Three and a half stars.