I finally got around to watching Bohemian Rhapsody on the weekend. It was a bit crap, but certainly not as bad as the critics said, and it was a lot of fun to watch, especially with kids. But then the views of film critics these days bear no relation to reality at all. Consider this one:
Rami Malek’s performance in Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the stranger success stories of the current Oscar season. By any halfway-objective measure, the 37-year-old American actor’s Freddie Mercury is not good at all.
Clothes aside, he doesn’t look much like the iconic Queen frontman, nor sound like him either, except while lip-synching to a tape of Mercury’s own vocals. The accent is wobbly, the stage presence stilted and sweatless, the prosthetic teeth a joke-shop embarrassment.
Malek’s performance is not particularly to my tastes, but that is just ridiculous. No wonder no-one bothers reading film critics any more.
As a Queen fan — well, a fan of 70’s Queen — I was constantly driven to distraction by the endless inaccuracies in the film. But that’s Hollywood. What I was more annoyed about was the fact that the filmmakers skipped quickly over the origins of the band, which is a far more fascinating subject than the cliched scenes of the record company boss who doesn’t want to release a six minute operatic song, or Freddie Mercury tossing up whether to have a solo career.
Brian May and Roger Taylor had previously been criticised for not understanding that Freddie was very much the star of the show and the others just bit players, but the film has ended up overdoing the focus on Freddie. The long courtship of Brian and Roger by Freddie is a fascinating and complicated topic. The simplifications of the film in regard to this aspect of the band’s history don’t even deserve to be called simplifications, they’re just outright fiction. Mercury is even portrayed as a loser who works at as a bag-handler at Heathrow, when in fact he was a glamorous art school student (and eventually graduate) who was friends with Tim Staffell, the singer of Smile (the precursor of Queen).
Freddie was desperate to join Smile, who weren’t interested initially, as they were doing well as they were, and he joined three other bands in quick succession to prove his credentials as a lead singer. He was in a band with the interesting son of a famous Oxford philosopher. He tried to turn a straightforward Northern blues band into something more exotic, and he lived in Liverpoool for a while to do so. Freddie and Roger Taylor lived in a flat together for a while and they used to have a barrow at Kensington market from which they’d sell hippy scarves and shirts and Victoriana. There were some weird bass players who were tried out. All that rags-to-riches and coming-of-age stuff was just missed out, as was a lot of fascinating detail of when the hippy era got a bit more glam, not to mention a lot of funny stories that aren’t the usual rock-star excess stuff.
Maybe it’s just me, but I always find the most interesting bits of rock biographies are the early days, when a bunch of youngsters struggle, but manage to make that transition from nobodies to a name band, and they find themselves as people and musicians and songwriters, and as a band. After that I lose interest. Who cares about reading how the band traveled in private jets and limos to a load of giant stadiums and did shows with a million lasers in front of hundreds of thousands of people and snorted coke with Mick Jagger? It would have been great to have been a part of that in person, but reading about it is dullsville.
I’ve also never cared in the slightest about Live Aid, a boring show full of self-congratulatory dinosaurs past their best, supposedly done for a cause that anyone with an objective eye – although there weren’t many of them at the time – could see was unrealistic. I’m glad that Queen have finally got their due as a great live band (because the rock critics, who have always been a bigger bunch of wankers than even film critics, pretended for years that Queen weren’t very good live) but I think the hype about Live Aid has got out of control now.
What would be ideal now is for there to be a TV series showing the real history of Queen, with a lot of episodes devoted to the various characters and bizarre episodes that made Queen’s early history such a rich source of entertainment. They could show the real, complex story behind the band’s difficult dealings with Trident management, rather than the cartoon version in the film. They might even be able to show how the band and producer Roy Thomas Baker sped up the tape to make Roger Taylor’s falsetto on Bohemian Rhapsody reach the required note. (You can hear it’s not his natural voice if you can get hold of the multitracks.) But even with the current Queen mania in full flow I’m probably just dreaming. But then, who would have thought that a slightly ropey film about Queen would become so big?
Update: Although perhaps I should add, somewhat belatedly, that in my view biopics never work. Not ever. Not for singers. Especially not for comedians. It doesn’t matter how supposedly spot-on the impersonation is (like that recent Kenneth Williams’ one), it never captures the unique charisma that talent that the original person had. I’ve given up watching most of them now.