Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. United Kingdom/USA, 2018. GK Films, New Regency Pictures, Queen Films Ltd., Regency Enterprises, Tribeca Productions. Story by Anthony McCarten, Peter Morgan, Screenplay by Anthony McCarten. Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel. Produced by Jim Beach, Robert De Niro, Graham King. Music by John Ottman. Production Design by Aaron Haye. Costume Design by Julian Day. Film Editing by John Ottman. Golden Globe Awards 2018.
An awkward fit whether at home or out in the world, young Farrokh Bulsara is someone that even the glam rock seventies isn’t ready for, flamboyant and in possession of noticeably prominent front teeth that he is very self-conscious about. He also knows that he has what it takes to be a star, seizing his moment when he introduces himself to a talented college band who have just lost one of their players and are in desperate need of a replacement. At first hesitant about taking on this apparent misfit, the team eventually form a band called Queen, and with their newly monikered Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) and his impressive pipes taking lead vocals, they move their way up the show business ladder, challenging nervous record executives (represented by Mike Myers, whose use of the title song in Wayne’s World is responsible for the resurgence of Queen’s popularity in the last two decades) who don’t like the idea of idiosyncratic, six-minute-long songs being sold to radio stations. As their gambles constantly pay off, the group is soon playing stadiums, and with the fortune that comes with this success, their leader is also devolving into bad habits, according to this film mostly enabled by a toxic relationship with a partner played by Allen Leech. Those familiar with the members of the band will likely have plenty to say about the film’s fast and loose relationship with historical detail, but anyone who has seen any musical biopic will already know that it’s a mountain of fiction, following as it does the same trajectory that all entries in the genre have traveled since Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso: youthful ambition and doubt, then success, then the fall from grace followed by the last-act redemption (which in this case is Queen’s magnificent comeback at the 1985 Live Aid concert). Malek struts his stuff and aggravates his enunciation in the lead role, probably the most insufferably enjoyable performance since Jennifer Jason Leigh played Dorothy Parker, but in his case doing so in a film whose soullessness undercuts his efforts: enjoyable and never boring, and at times even quite touching, this one makes sense once one learns that director Bryan Singer’s erratic behaviour during filming (which included his reportedly disappearing from work for days on end) led to his being fired by the studio. There’s little substance behind all the hard-working, noisy machinery (the last two weeks were shot by Dexter Fletcher, who was also working on the Elton John biopic soon to follow), but there is one smart element to it, that Mercury’s war was not with the world but within himself. He seems to enjoy universal adulation almost from the moment he stepped out on stage, but all the praise and success can do nothing for someone who has can’t resolve his emotional conflicts about his ethnic heritage or his rocky road towards accepting his sexuality. His bandmates are portrayed as a loving family who have each other’s backs until Mercury breaks from them, but despite the strength of this emotionally satisfying foundation, the film ultimately diminishes Mercury to make him palatable for modern-day audiences in a way that weakens the overall experience. Smaller, smoother, not nearly sweaty enough and never quite capturing the uncontainable sexual energy that Mercury was always projecting on stage, the character has been repackaged for the era of Enthusiastic Consent, his politically incorrect hookups kept mostly off screen while the only male on male action that we get to view is the stuff that would pass muster in a Meg Ryan movie. I’d hate to break it to the optimistic viewers who need a moral catharsis for all the orgies that he enjoyed in his errant years, but linking the joys of filthy backroom sex to his downfall and eventual death is bourgeois moralizing meant to sell him to a mainstream audience, I’d dare to say that his lowest point was more likely due to his losing his focus on his ambition and relying too much on drugs to keep him energized (there’s lots of ways to get AIDS, folks, including by way of things your grandmother did). Such a sanitized view of someone who coloured so beautifully outside the lines is the biggest disappointment, the film never quite gets at the heart of its characters or their story, satisfying a sense of nostalgia for the wonderful music but little else.