This longtime-coming biopic about a chunk of the life of Freddie Mercury a.k.a. Farrokh Bulsara (1946 – 1991) is full of foot-stomping Queen classics, all of which effectively distract you from the prevailing awkwardness and phoniness.
A UK/USA co-production, this one had a tortured development (Sacha Baron Cohen was set to topline for years) and was beset with problems when director Bryan Singer (of The Usual Suspects and several X-Men outings) behaved so badly that he was fired and replaced by English actor/director Dexter Fletcher. In the end Singer kept the top credit and Fletcher is only listed as an executive producer, despite reportedly having actually helmed about half of it – and yet these legal concerns are only the beginning of the many issues here.
Freddie is now played by Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek (of TV’s Mr. Robot), who hit the gym and wore false buck teeth for the role, and yet he’s too short and at times seems uneasy. However, when it comes to turning on the onstage Mercury strut, he just about nails it.
Opening with Freddie and the world preparing for the Live Aid concert on July 13 1985 (to the tune of Somebody To Love), this then cuts to 1970 and a hairier, less polished Freddie working as a Heathrow baggage handler. He lives with his Zoroastrian, Zanzibar-born family in London and (in true biopic fashion) he’s doted after by his caring Mum (Meneka Das) and scolded by his sanctimonious Dad (Ace Bhatti).
Just happening to go out to a pub one night, Freddie somehow meets not only the supposed love of his life Mary (Lucy Boynton) but also catches the last gig by the prog-rocky outfit Smile, who self-destruct after the show. Luckily Freddie’s there to impress lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and he’s taken on as lead singer in a series of quick, convoluted scenes.
Recruiting new bassist John Deacon (former child star Joe/Joseph Mazzello looking like Neil from The Young Ones), the band change their name, hit the studio, revolutionise the lo-fi recording process (using coins, beer cans, flying amps and more) and are taken on by manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and lawyer Jim ‘Miami’ Beach (Tom Hollander, always welcome). When they pull out all the stops and create the titular song in extravagant circumstances that almost rival the production of The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, they’re dropped by grumpy exec Ray Foster (Mike ‘Austin Powers’ Myers) but go on to become huge anyway, especially when helped by no less than DJ Kenny Everett (Dickie Beau in a strong cameo).
All that excess leads to the end of Freddie and Mary’s engagement, and eventually we take up in 1980 when he’s living with the nasty, controlling Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and the band are at each other’s throats despite endless successes, including the apparently too-disco-sounding Another One Bites The Dust and We Will Rock You, a tune constructed to be something for the audience to help perform. And they always do.
So much here is unconvincing: the 1970s are too clean; some of the studio scenes feel fake despite approval by the real Brian and Roger (the real John prefers to sit at home and collect royalties); and Malek at times nearly gags on his fake chompers. Diehard Freddie fans are also crying foul, insisting that the truly outrageous guy is too sanitised and that, in actuality, he was wilder, crazier, randier and not so consumed by clichéd self-loathing.
But the songs just keep on coming: Fat Bottomed Girls during a montage of their first US tour; Killer Queen when they first appear on the BBC; a bit of Under Pressure during a late-on blow-up (we don’t see the recording of that one though, probably out of respect to David Bowie); and, finally, some of their cuts from The Works during the lengthy Live Aid finale. They’re almost all fabulous, and you stop nit-picking and forget everything for a few minutes.
However, the need to get a PG-13 Rating for the sake of the US box-office means that we don’t see the filming of the infamous original Bicycle Race video (featuring 65 naked glamour models), there’s only a glimpse of cocaine and nothing is said about the orgies the band organised for the press in order to nab a good review or two.
Then again, of course, Queen didn’t need critics, even if this film rather does.