I can’t remember my world without Queen in it. Growing up in the 80s, I vividly remember the video for ‘Radio Gaga’ playing regularly on the CHUM 30 Video Countdown tv show; it helped introduce the world of Metropolis to so many of us. As the decade continued on, and North America ignored the band’s new works, ‘We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ were still radio favourites. Amazingly though, as I entered high school in 1990, you’d be hard pressed to find the band’s EMI catalogue anywhere on CD. In fact, I had to order my copy of Live Queen on import, and it was pretty darn expensive.
Radio jumped all over Queen’s 1991 album Innuendo; ‘Headlong’ was a shot in the arm, rock and roll record, while the title track had much of the pageantry of the band’s best work. Though the band was clearly reluctant to tour, guitarist Brian May made an appearance at Toronto’s massive HMV superstore that year, playing along with tracks from the album, while insisting Freddie Mercury’s health was fine. Of course, we all found out the truth a few months later when Freddie passed away from AIDS. Not long afterwards, the band regained their reputation in North America, thanks to the appearance of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in Wayne’s World.
While I know not everybody loves the band – their penchant for dramatics in much of their music will never be to everybody’s tastes – Freddie Mercury’s legacy as one of rock’s greatest frontmen is indisputable. There’s certainly a case that nobody else could connect with an audience like he could. And his story, the charisma and the sexuality he brought to the stage, makes it no small wonder why Hollywood would want to bring it the big screen. Bohemian Rhapsody, the new film from director Bryan Singer, does so with thrilling abandon, thanks to the music that inspired it, and outstanding performances from all involved.
Rami Malek has been getting raves for his total embodiment of Freddie Mercury, and they’re all justified. It’s spellbinding how he captures every nuance of the singer, on and off stage. The voice, the mannerisms – this isn’t imitation. It’s resurrection. Credit also has to go to Gwilym Lee, who manages his own brilliant performance as guitarist Brian May. He gets his speaking voice and own unique onstage persona perfectly. In the fervour of praise for Malek, Lee also deserves a tip of the hat.
The concert scenes are deftly recreated and thrilling, even in a movie theatre. The grand finale, a recreation of Queen’s transcendent performance at Live Aid in 1985, gave me shivers as I watched. This was a band that owned the stage, and Bohemian Rhapsody places it in full display.
However, for all its good work, it is worth nothing that this film is more fantasy than reality in many ways. Timelines are messed with for dramatic purposes; order of song creations are often inaccurate. The band’s British TV performance of ‘Killer Queen’ is presented as coming not long after the release of the first album, but the track is actually from their third. ‘We Will Rock You’ was released in 1977, and Freddie’s look didn’t change until 1980. And most notable, Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with HIV until 1987, a fact played with to make the band’s Live Aid performance more poignant. While a general audience won’t notice these issues, those with knowledge of the band’s history could very well be perturbed with the rewrite (I was). These decisions are part and parcel of rock bios, mind you; no matter what you see in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, Jim Morrison never threw a television at his fellow bandmates.
Ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody is more majestic triumph than troublesome; just don’t go in looking for the truth and nothing but the truth. Judging by the huge opening weekend the film is having, audiences are happy to live the fantasy of Freddie Mercury.