Bohemian Rhapsody: A Good Idea Gone Horribly Wrong


The story of Queen and Freddie Mercury is an enthralling one. It contains all the vital ingredients that filmmakers and audiences love – perseverance, grandiloquence, triumph over adversity, tragedy and, most importantly, very familiar, and very good, music. In short, there’s a crackingly good tale to be told about the life of Freddie Mercury and Queen.

However Bohemian Rhapsody is not that tale. This is despite the involvement of two of the three surviving members of Queen in the form of guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor.

There are two reviews to be written about the film. To the casual filmgoer, whose knowledge of Mercury and Queen extends to seeing old videos of the band, and their rightly lauded Live Aid performance, the film is excellent. The performances of the cast are solid, Rami Malek as Mercury, is worthy of awards. The film is well made and captures the live performances of Queen with a majesty that is worth seeing on its own. However these performances can easily be found on actual Queen DVDs and BluRays now, including Live Aid, so why watch actors recreate them?

The movie itself is a confused account of the life of Mercury and the career of the band. How confused? Within the first ten minutes errors abound. It’d take far too long to recount them all, so I’ll focus on the most glaring, and most important.

The movie opens with Mercury approaching May and Taylor in a car park, whereupon he auditions for their band, Smile. That never happened. Mercury met Taylor and May in the 1960s and had expressed a desire to work with them if possible. His friend Tim Staffell, the lead singer, and bassist, of Smile, actually introduced him to May and Taylor. When Staffell left the band, after they’d recorded an unreleased album and a single that did nothing, Freddie joined. Bassist John Deacon came later in the piece, they both didn’t join at the same time.

No wonder Deacon wants nothing to do with May and Taylor anymore.

From there the errors flood in. Some are stupid, continuity errors.

Let’s take the music. The band perform the song Fat Bottomed Girls on stage in 1974, during a headlining tour of America that never happened (their first US tour was as support to Mott The Hoople). The song was written in 1978. By Brian May. Music is all over the place from there on. May has the band recording the seminal tune, We Will Rock You at some point in the early 1980s – the song was written and recorded in 1977. Other songs are shown out of context and out of the time periods, as are Mercury’s stage costumes. It’s also hard to tell what album is being recorded when – the song Crazy Little Thing Called Love  plays in 1981 when the band were recording Hot Space. The song came about two years earlier. And so it goes.

You might say this is nitpicking, but if the movie can’t get the dates of songs right – and these are songs written by May – then what else does it get wrong? The answer is everything.

The band are shown arguing with Mercury over a proposed solo album. Mercury recorded his solo album over a period spanning 1983 to 1985 and released it in 1985. Before that drummer Taylor had released two solo albums of his own and May an EP. It’s well known that Mercury wanted his album to be absent of Queen members, leading to a dispute with May who wanted to perform on it.

John Reid, the manager of Queen, must surely be aggrieved with this film. Mercury never sacked him threw him out of a car in New York. The truth behind that is somewhat tepid – they agreed to merely part ways.

The band never split up in 1983 and reformed for Live Aid. Again, the truth is overlooked. In 1984 Queen released the magnificent return to form album The Works. The album had several great songs on it, including two that everyone knows: Radio Ga-Ga and I Want To Break Free. They then toured the album and had just come off the road when Live Aid happened. They were ready to go, after rehearsing the set for a fortnight and lending the Live Aid trust their own sound man and mixing desk, thus ensuring that they’d sound perfect. For Queen, and Mercury, Live Aid was a perfectly executed exercise with nothing left to chance, unlike a lot of their peers.

Most unforgivably is the depiction of Mercury himself. He is portrayed as being confused about his sexuality to the point of being a predator. He is shown lavishly lusting over a truck driver entering a public toilet and, even worse, assaulting a waiter who later turns out to be his last, long term partner Jim Hutton. That never happened. Mercury met Hutton in a gay bar, Hutton refused his offer of a drink, they met again a year later, that time he accepted. However Hutton is dead now, so he can’t complain.

The final insult comes when Mercury is shown to have AIDS before Live Aid. He turns up to the rehearsal, begs for forgiveness and reveals his diagnosis. That, like the bulk of this movie, is a fiction. Mercury wasn’t diagnosed until 1987 and, by their admission, he didn’t tell the band until after they’d recorded The Miracle in 1989.

Which brings us to the finale. Mercury, at Live Aid, was in full command of the audience, both in the stadium and on the television. Anyone who watched it at the time will tell you that, even if they didn’t like Queen, the band were the standouts. From the moment he bounced out onto the stage to the moment he left, Mercury was on. He was 100% and showed not an ounce of doubt or hesitation. The movie would have you think otherwise, that Mercury was plagued with self-doubt and the band also felt he couldn’t do it. They are surprised when he does.

Here's the real performance. See for yourself. Tell me where he looks like he's in fear, where his voice is failing him. This is Freddie at his peak. He had the entire world in the palm of his hands and not once did he show anything other than full and complete confidence.

The movie runs for around two hours. I lost track of the amount of times I screamed at the screen, “WRONG! IT’S ALL FUCKING WRONG!!!” And it is all wrong. I could, easily, pull every single scene apart, but that would be a book in itself.

Where, if anywhere, did it get things right?

First up, Mary Austin was the love of his life, even if the movie did get their meeting wrong. It was Mary who he confided in and who he left control of his estate to. And it is Mary who May and, to a lesser extent, Taylor have to deal with, much to their own dismay as Austin refuses to give in to their every demand.

And, secondly, Paul Prenter was a manipulative bastard. He was a toxic presence in Mercury's life but even the movie got it wrong. It was Prenter who sold his story and photos to the Sun, which the movie has happen in 1981, and without a mention of Prenter's involvement. The truth is Prenter sold his story, complete with salacious photographs of Mercury after he was sacked in the mid-1980s. Other than that, well.

The strength of a biographical film is its underlying truth. Bohemian Rhapsody plays very loosely with the truth, which is staggering when you consider that a lot of the participants are still alive and can be consulted. It’s even more astounding when you remember that two of the band members had direct involvement with this film and were on the set at times. They’ve allowed this travesty to happen. The band owe it to the public not to fictionalise the truth, to cover it up and outright lie and then pass off the results as being the facts. The public has a right not to be treated like idiots and Mercury has a right to have his story told with accuracy.

People have asked me, who cares if it's true or not? It's a good film and a good story, so what does it matter? And movies aren't meant to be truth anyway.

It does matter. Those who have no previously knowledge of Mercury are likely to come away from this thinking that he was a deviant, a sexual predator a liar and a bully. The celluloid Mercury is full of self-doubt and needs his ego constantly stroked. It's not the truth. And those who seek to tell the story have a duty to tell the truth, the good and the bad and everything in between. Otherwise just say it's a typical band movie with some Queen songs as the soundtrack.

John Ford once famously said, when faced with printing the truth or the legend, go with the legend. In this case the legend is so far removed from the truth that Mercury, if he were still alive, could easily have sued the band for misrepresentation.

As I said at the beginning, there is a great story to be told about the life of Freddie Mercury and Queen.

Bohemian Rhapsody is not it.


SMR said…
90% of music biopics make me cringe, because they tend to lack complexity or authenticity. It's a shame, because as you point out, the source material would have made a great movie if presented honestly, and the music is fantastic. Luckily, we do have a lot of footage of the real band at work. Anyway, thanks for saving me two precious hours of my life, mate.
Unknown said…
Totally agree with your assesment, 100%. There was no need for so many historical inaccuracies. And while I thought Rami was great as Freddie, the film really downplayed his humor and likability.
Wm Byron said…
I agree, it was maddening. I'm someone who is fluent in Queen and Freddie history and I went in (as I'm sure you did as well) perfectly aware and accepting that it would likely be dramatized in certain areas but... the changes were flabbergasting, it's as if they wanted to take literally one of the most dynamic and confident performers of all time and dilute him to make him more boring. Some of the changes don't even serve their story. But it was obnoxious to see Freddie apologize and cater to Brian and Rog. They've been making terrible decision after terrible decision for years now, however, like claiming Paul Rodgers was Freddie's favorite singer, etc.

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