This post has been rather a long time coming… Many of you reading this will know me either for my usually quite forthright opinions about theatre, or my dedication (let’s say) to the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon. What you’ll be less aware of is that my first love was Queen. It goes back so far that I’m actually struggling to pinpoint even the year that something clicked and I became a full-on Queenaholic… I’m inclined to think it was around 1997/1998, as I definitely remember taking more of an interest in my dad’s CD collection around that age (I would’ve been about ten years old), even taking music in for school projects – I’d developed a hatred for the Spice Girls by then, so it would make sense that my love of “real” music had kicked in.
I digress… Anyway, across the years I have obviously added to my music interests (including the obligatory, embarrassing pop phase – thankfully it only lasted about a year), finding my own bands and developing my taste – but Queen have always been there in the background. I don’t think there’s been a single occasion where I haven’t had at least a handful of their songs dutifully waiting on my mp3 player. But since 27 October 2018 there’s been a rather noticeable resurgence! That Saturday morning I saw the long-awaited Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time, and it’s had an incredibly profound effect on me.
Almost immediately, I was transported back to my childhood: memories of waiting for my mum in the school library and printing off reams of information about the band from their website & various fan sites, creating themed mixtapes, pretending to drum along, and saving up to buy one of their albums every few weeks. Between us, my brother & I accumulated the entire back catalogue fairly swiftly. All of that flooding back would’ve been enough to make me emotional at the best of times, but then you have to consider what’s been created on the screen.
My favourite band was there, before my very eyes! Obviously another thing that I’d done as a child was watch a limited collection of video tapes over & over (Live at Wembley ’86, the Greatest Video Hits 1-3, The Magic Years), which means I must have permanently etched their movements, facial expressions & various tics into my brain, as I instinctively felt that it was the band I was watching. A lot has been made of how Rami Malek captured Freddie’s moves (quite rightly – even that strut & little lock step he does at the beginning of Radio Gaga at Live Aid makes me oddly emotional every time), but it should also be noted how spot on Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy & Joe Mazzello were as Brian, Roger & John: from Roger’s drum face & showmanship to the Deacy two-step. Plus if you close your eyes you’d swear that Brian May himself was talking… Whilst they may not all look & sound 100% like the real thing at all times, what’s important is that the spirit of the band is absolutely there – that they’ve bonded in real life comes across so strongly and definitely enhanced their performances. I’m also a massive fan of Tom Hollander, so I have to mention how much I enjoyed his turn as Queen’s lawyer-turned-manager Jim ‘Miami’ Beach.
I’m not going to pretend that it’s film-making perfection – it’s a fairly straightforward biopic using a recognisable trajectory – but the fact that it seems to have fairly decent fan approval and now some award nominations & wins under its belt does speak volumes. It’s certainly perfect for me. If you wanted to see the entire story then it would need a Lord of the Rings treatment, with an epic trilogy of three-hour films. It would then inevitably be more dull in places (multiple contract negotiation scenes – woo!) and resemble a documentary rather than a piece of entertainment. As it is, it manages to tread a decent line between being informative and entertaining: they were indeed supremely confident in themselves, as well as very hands-on in the studio, the volume did get turned up for their Live Aid set (though by their sound engineer rather than their manager), and Bohemian Rhapsody was referred to as “Fred’s thing” by Roy Thomas Baker. I love how they tease the audience with the title song, giving us scraps of piano and guitar (plus the infamous operatic section) before properly launching into the full thing.
There are some odd bits of chronology (I was surprised to remember single & album release dates during my first watch of the film), but the stories behind each bit remain true to life – even if we see them in slightly the wrong order, such as the genesis of We Will Rock You. The Fat Bottomed Girls American tour sequence has become one of my favourite sections of the film, despite it being about four years too early for that song, and I wouldn’t exchange it with Now I’m Here (for example) for anything.
A lot has been made of the film being “straight-washed”, but I’d argue that it would be disrespectful to Freddie and Mary if their relationship had been downplayed; they were important to each other and remained very close until Freddie’s death – plus it will have come as a surprise to some watching that Freddie had a long-term girlfriend. It should be noted that Mary herself has said in an interview that Freddie initially told her he was bisexual and that she suggested to him that he was gay, so it shouldn’t be surprising that this was how they chose to portray it in the film.
It’s not true that Freddie had his AIDS diagnosis prior to Live Aid, but it’s understandable that they’d want to fit it into the story – because of association, mostly, but it also continues to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. They could potentially have had the Magic Tour as the ending, as those gigs ended up being the last they played together as a band, but the hastily tacked on Knebworth concert isn’t anywhere near as iconic as the Wembley performances – and the benefit of Live Aid as an ending is that it has a potentially wider appeal (more people have heard of it than a Queen album tour) and it did serve as a rejuvenating moment for the band. They had their ups & downs, and breaks from each other, but 1985 definitely kickstarted things for them; they had one more album where songs were individually credited, before moving to the ‘by Queen’ credit mentioned in the film in 1989.
As of Friday 12 January, I’ve managed to see the film 10 times. Believe it or not, I had only intended on seeing it once – but when I saw it and loved it (and then realised I could get cheap cinema tickets through my workplace perks system) I ended up returning to it on a regular basis. As well as filling myself with champagne cocktails and vodka & tonic, I marked the anniversary of Freddie’s death by catching a morning screening – this was emotional masochism, pure and simple – plus in the first weekend of January I just had to go again as my brother hadn’t yet seen it…
Despite my reservations, I decided to round off my Bo Rhap cinema visits by going to one of the sing-along screenings that were scheduled due to popular demand – let’s just say I have a way to go with these kind of things! I am incredibly self-conscious when it comes to my voice (I’m only confident singing along at gigs because it’s so loud you can’t even hear yourself, let alone anyone else), so obviously I came over very shy when I realised they hadn’t pumped the volume up quite enough. Even resolving to sing along at Live Aid didn’t work, as I ended up getting all emotional again. But all the same, I was glad to have gone – and it was just nice to be part of a room that you knew was completely swept up in the whole thing.
It may have taken a rather long time to get this film done and out into the world, but I can honestly say that it’s been worth the wait. I’m so glad they held out for the right team and the right angle to the story; Sacha Baron Cohen’s project could potentially have been horrific, for one thing, and I think this film manages to strike a pretty good balance – Freddie is the inevitable focus, but Brian, Roger & John are just as well developed as characters, and their strength as a unit ends up being one of the central messages of the whole film. It’s understandable that the remaining band members want to protect their legacy; most projects of this kind end up with some biases and aren’t strictly objective, but as it’s a film (not a documentary) this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. You may not agree with everything Brian May & Roger Taylor have done since the group officially disbanded, but thanks to them carrying the torch, those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to be alive when Queen were still gigging continue to have a variety of ways of engaging with the band.
The critics may have been less than thrilled with Bohemian Rhapsody, but that’s not at all new as far as Queen are concerned. What they’ve managed to do is give “the people what they want”, break box office records, and accumulate some accolades. Which I think is fair enough, don’t you?
Bohemian Rhapsody can still be seen in cinemas nationwide. It will be released in the UK on digital (16 February 2019) and DVD/Blu-Ray (4 March 2019). The OST is available through the official Queen website.