My parents have a fantastic vinyl collection. The soundtrack of my youth varied between my mum’s Beatles, Elton John and Rolling Stones records alongside my Dad’s Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull and The Band albums. It was also not uncommon to come home from school to hear mum blasting Pavarotti through the house, a habit I have happily inherited.
While our familial music tastes mostly intersected, there were groups we disagreed on and this was made apparent on long car trips. Our winter holiday pilgrimages to Grahamstown for the Arts Festival meant hours’ worth of car time keeping the driver alert and us, the kids, amused. A pacifying large chunk of biltong to gnaw was one way of entertaining us but so was the democratic way in which the journey soundtrack was allocated. We each had a turn to choose a tape, nobody could complain, we’d listen to it from start to finish and then it was the next person’s turn. I remember loving the Little Mermaid soundtrack at the time as well as The Simpson’s album, which I knew all the words to. I should take this moment to apologise to my family for my choices now.
I recall my mum’s choice of Michael Bolton (this was the early nineties) and my dad’s favourite, Queen. He had the Greatest Hits Volume II, and I absolutely loved it. The hard guitars, the epic vocals, strong baselines, energetic drums and the drama of all these elements combined really nurtured my growing love of rock music. Later on I discovered my mum’s cassette of the seminal A Night at the Opera (which I believe is still in my room back home in Cape Town) and my love affair with Queen has not waned since.
A dear school friend, who was and still is probably Freddie Mercury’s number one fan, and I would have epic sing alongs while driving. I made a promise to her when I moved to the UK that I would not pay homage at his London residence without her, because it just wouldn’t be right. Queen would also be the soundtrack for years whenever I went to visit another friend’s house, the Greatest Hits albums would immediately play and conversation would be interrupted for a sing along and the occasional theatrical power grab. With the advent of Spotify and party playlists, a number of Queen tracks would inevitably be added to the mix filling the dancefloor, much like the nights in Claremont’s Tiger Tiger back in the day where ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ was played every weekend around midnight putting a smile on everyone’s face and a wiggle in their step.
Freddie Mercury as the face of Queen was always a caricature. His flamboyant style, stage presence and wild charisma were unrivalled. Following his death in 1991 his legend belonged to his many fans who fiercely guarded it. A larger than life creative creature of the stage that remains so precious to so many. It felt like a bold move for 20th Century Fox to tackle a biopic of the late, great performer in Bohemian Rhapsody. The project was plagued from the start with well-publicised casting dramas as well as the director, Bryan Singer, walking away toward the end of production making this film a real labour of love for the producers.
I was nervous while I waited for the screen to empty on opening weekend. Would Rami Malek be up to the task of capturing The Great Pretender? How much of Freddie’s fascinating life would make it into a two hour movie? Hearing the sounds of a live Queen performance emanating through the closed screen doors had given me small lump in my throat, would I be able to hold it together?
I wanted to find fault with this film, but it was really worth the wait. This is not a rose tinted interpretation of a fabled celebrity, but an honest portrayal of the sensitive artist under the unitard façade; a perfectionist pushing barriers of technology and his band mates’ patience to find the right sound; the lonely performer misled by an obsessive self-serving aide and a vulnerable soul who took control of his destiny only to have it cruelly limited.
Singer’s sharp eye kept it personal, shooting very close to the characters throughout. This makes it feel like you are in the studio while they record Bohemian Rhapsody, in the room while EMI rejects it and on stage as the audience laps it up. Inventive and long sweeping shots give the sense of the scale of crowds who filled stadiums to see Queen live. Care and attention was also given to the friendship and friction between the members of band and the timeless music born out of the tension.
The film depicts as much as the time one film allows. Starting with a young Farrokh Bulsara working as a baggage handler at Heathrow while studying design, we travelled through his joining ‘Smile’, the foursome of Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon becoming Queen and their rise from strength to strength. We saw a successful yet self-conscious and isolated man becoming separated from those who loved him, his private acceptance of his sexuality and his descent into chaos. It became a redemption tale with Mercury’s reconciliation with the band and their triumphant return performing at Live Aid which serves as the climax of the film.
Malek fully morphs into all the phases of Freddie so seamlessly it’s eerie. I was looking for fault, but from the opening sequence of Mercury leaving his house to go on stage at Live Aid, the gestures and mannerisms, especially in slow motion, were as if he was channelling Mercury himself. The only flaw in this masterfully created biopic is the lip syncing. While I couldn’t imagine them using anything other than Mercury’s own voice, since he is unparalleled, it does ‘break the fourth wall’ and reminded me I was in a cinema which shattered the illusion for me, but only briefly, so this is splitting hairs.
The climactic Live Aid performance is played almost in its entirety and is so moving. A particular shot of the reflection of the capacity crowd at Wembley in Mercury’s eyes, even though it’s a digital trick, made me reflect on just how much we lost when he passed away. Where the film’s opening sequence showed Mercury approaching the stage alone, the shots toward the end of the film show the band approaching the stage together as a unit again, like a family reunion or a homecoming.
The performance felt so real I almost wasn’t surprised to hear other cinema goers clapping along as I was quietly singing to myself with involuntary tears rolling down my cheeks. Ending the film on such a high is how Mercury should be remembered and celebrated. He did not disclose his diagnosis since he did not want to be “the poster boy or cautionary tale” for a disease, and rightly so. He was the sum of so much more.
We all have our own Freddie, and this film does it’s best not to trample on anyone’s personal perception of the writer, the performer, the dreamer, the ‘wild child’, the cat person, the lover and the artist. Bohemian Rhapsody truly is a kind of magic.