This has been a film with one of the most troubled productions in recent years. When a Queen biopic was originally announced, it was done so with Sacha Baron Cohen playing Freddie Mercury. He ended up leaving due to disputes with the surviving members of Queen, mainly, from what I can gather, over the depiction of Mercury’s battle with AIDS. Then it was going to be Ben Whishaw as Mercury with Dexter Fletcher directing, but they ended up leaving before it finally started rolling with Rami Malek as Mercury and Bryan Singer directing. However, even then it wasn’t smooth as Singer ended up getting fired due to his awful behaviour on set before the film was finished (even though he should never have been hired in the first place given the sexual abuse allegations against him) and Dexter Fletcher was brought back in to replace Singer. It’s a miracle that we even got the film at all. It’s a shame though that this doesn’t give the insight into Mercury that I wanted to see.
The film focuses on the career of Queen from when Freddie Mercury joined the band back when it was called Smile up to the legendary performance by Queen at Live Aid, covering the recording of Shear Heart Attack and A Night At the Opera, Queen’s touring schedule and Freddie Mercury coming to terms with his own sexuality. Now the idea of doing a more light-hearted, celebratory film about Queen is not bad on paper, the problem here is that it doesn’t do it particularly well. We get little hints about the background for some of Queen’s songs, mainly Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You, but the overall film follows the same formula of the band arguing with each other until they play one of their signature songs. The whole film just feels so formulaic, doing nothing different from any other music biopic to make it stand out. The fact that the film is a 12A doesn’t help matters since it can’t show the famous debauchery of Queen’s parties or go more into detail with Mercury’s sexuality. The choices of what to cover meanwhile are a bit baffling, with more time given to I’m In Love With My Car than songs like Killer Queen, Somebody To Love, the Flash Gordon soundtrack. The fact the film ends at Live Aid also means that scenes which could have been really powerful, like the recording sessions for the Highlander soundtrack leading into Who Wants To Live Forever and Mercury using it as a reflection of his diagnosis with AIDS couldn’t be included. We get hints of it with the song playing over Mercury getting his diagnosis, which happened after Live Aid not before. The main thing this results in is that I didn’t get an understanding of who Queen were, with everything that makes Queen unique told to us rather than shown.
There’s also a bit of an issue in how it portrays Mercury’s sexuality, equal parts blaming it for damage done to Queen and his personal life, but also celebrating it at the end. It’s a confused message, not helped by the fact that Jim Hutton, Mercury’s boyfriend, is in the film for about 5 minutes, with the initial scene of the two meeting having a bit of a ‘gay panic’ vibe at the start of it. I do think giving more focus to Mary Austin in the first half of the film was a good idea, but I feel like Jim Hutton should have been a more defined character.
The performances though help the film stay afloat. Rami Malek as Mercury is incredible. It’s not really an act of mimicry, watching Malek, you feel like you are watching Mercury, just the way that he moves commands so much attention and does a brilliant job replicating the style and movements of Mercury on stage. He also does great work in the emotional scenes, showing the difficulty in his personal life and his desire to move on from his beginnings as a kid from Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport. For as much as the script doesn’t develop Mercury, everything we need to know comes from Malek’s performance. Gwilym Lee as Brian May, Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor and Jospeh Mazzello as John Deacon are fun and look identical to the real people, but I wanted them to be a bit more developed, with stuff like May being an astrophysicist, Taylor training to be a dentist, and pretty much anything about Deacon’s personal life treated as an afterthought. Lucy Boynton is strong as Mary Austin, showing her love for Mercury well, but the character grows more one dimensional as the film goes on. Aidan Gillen and Tom Hollander meanwhile play exactly the sort of characters you think of when you see their names in the cast and Allen Leech gives a decent villainous performance. The biggest misstep in the cast though is Mike Myers. All the problems of the film being formulaic and on-the-nose come through his performance, which seemingly is only in the film to remind people that Wayne’s World exists.
On a technical level, the film is fine. The costume design and make-up work does a great job at replicating the style of Queen and the recordings of the songs are well handled. I just wish there was a bit more style in the film. Having more style would have helped give the film a more fantastical tone which is probably what the film was intended to have and, based on the trailer for Rocketman, is probably why Dexter Fletcher was hired to replace Bryan Singer. Singer is a competent director, but he’s not well known for style and it does feel like the more stylish moments in the film were directed by Fletcher. The one unequivocal triumph in the film in this level is the recreation of the Live Aid performance. Even though some of the omissions were baffling (like cutting out We Will Rock You when a big deal was raised about it earlier on), the actual recreation is incredible, making full use of the strong music, Malek’s excellent replication of Mercury’s movement style and the direction for this scene perfectly captures the scale of Live Aid and the magnitude of Queen’s performance.
Overall, this is a pretty confused film. It wants to be a more fantastical look at the fantasy of Queen, but also wants to do a deep look into the life of Freddie Mercury. These two tones don’t mesh together well and results in a good deal of tonal whiplash. Whilst the performances, especially Rami Malek, are strong, the film just doesn’t work as a whole and just kept reminding me of the film we could have got with Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury.
My Rating: 2.5/5