Film

Freddie: a mercurial champion

JUST a poor boy, from a poor family: Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photograph courtesy New York Times

IN THIS LIFETIME, you may be lucky enough to come across a dinkum sprite. A piece of quicksilver. A someone who doesn’t fit in anywhere, who makes their own rules and in doing so, changes the world’s parameters. And if you’re not lucky enough to meet that magical person in the flesh, you’re definitely lucky enough to confront what they leave behind. Mozart was one of these mercurial jinns. So was the lead vocal of rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury. And the Bryan Singer film Bohemian Rhapsody that punts itself as a biopic of Mercury, celebrates the maverick unbridled energy that made Freddie, Freddie. And it’s unforgettable.

Bohemian Rhapsody embraces the quintessential hero myth which will leave you with tear-stained cheeks and a sense of potency: it’s about victory on so many levels. Yes, it is also about coming to terms with being different – born Farrokh Balsara in Zanzibar to Parsi folk who were of the Zoroastrian faith, in 1946, Mercury had to work hard to redefine himself; it’s about facing the harshness of criticism and condemnation in a rock world hungry for gossip and soiled with homophobic judgements; as it’s about realising your mistakes in the face of greedy managers. Ultimately, you go away from this film with the unforgettable music of Queen sizzling through your sensibilities.

There’ve been many naysayers in the critical reception of this particular film. One says it is homophobic. Another says it’s not true. But hey, let’s take a step back here. Freddie Mercury lived for 45 years on this planet. The makers of this film had but 135 minutes in which to tell his whole story with as much glitz and sexiness to make you want to buy tickets for it. It’s as much about the business of entertainment as it is about rock history. If there are factual errors, the basic flow of the mythical tale here does what it must. And homophobic? Cast your mind back to the Aids stigmas rife in the western world at the time of Mercury’s death in 1991. Think of the homophobia that sullied an understanding of society before then: Queen came of age in a world ripe with bias.

The tale begins and ends with the LiveAid concert staged in London’s Wembley stadium in 1985, which was organised to raise money to help victims of the Ethiopian famine. It fits narrative conventions and slips back in time to offer insights into Freddie’s chutzpah and charm, his teenaged years in the mid 1960s and his emergence onto the Queen scene. It doesn’t offer insight into how he learnt piano or how he confronted the unusual structure of his mouth – he had four incisors more than anyone else. Experts argue that this jaw structure was one of the elements that gave Mercury his extraordinary vocal range, but it was also something for which he was relentlessly bullied as a child.

And while you may feel sadness and discomfort in the no-holds-barred look at the strengths and weaknesses of the character of Freddie, it is the music that will send you. From the eponymous song, based on the moral issues of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment which brought an opera texture bravely and confidently into rock, to hits such as <<stamp stamp clap>> We Will Rock You, Another One Bites the Dust, Under Pressure and so many more that saw Queen stretching rock’s possibilities to make something timeless and their own.

The film’s representation of Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), the instrumental core of Queen that sung to those who didn’t fit in, will impress even you who may have pasted your bedroom walls full of Queen posters in the 1970s and 1980s.

But when we come to Rami Malek’s portrayal of Mercury himself, something else happens. Obviously wearing a dental prosthesis, Malek, who you may recently have seen in the film Papillon, slips into Freddie Mercury’s energy zone in a way that stops you from comparing the Freddie in your mind’s eye with the Freddie on this silver screen, after the first few seconds of this film. He seems younger than the rest of the band members, which is not true. Deacon, born in 1951, was the youngest – and Freddie, was in fact, the oldest. But this is a discrepancy you quickly overlook. Malek takes on this role with finesse and authority, for the next generation of Queen groupies.

  • Bohemian Rhapsody is directed by Dexter Fletcher and Bryan Singer and features a cast headed by Philip Andrew, Dickie Beau, Felipe Bejarano, Rosy Benjamin, Max Bennett, Ace Bhatti, Priya Blackburn, Andrew Bowerman, Lucy Boynton, Leila Crerar, Royce Cronin, Meneka Das, Ian Gabriel Dumdum, Michelle Duncan, Neil Fox-Roberts, Haf Gibson, Aidan Gillen, Ross Green, Matt Greenwood, Kieran Hardcastle, Ben Hardy, Honor Hellon, Joshua Higgott, Tom Hollander, Peter Howe, Pat Lally, Gwilym Lee, Allen Leech, Bruce Mackinnon, James MacLaren, Rami Malek, Joseph Mazzello, Aaron McCusker, Dermot Murphy, Mike Myers, Katherine Newman, Martin Oelbermann, John Ottman, William Owen, Drew P, Tim Plester, Jess Radomska, Adam Rauf, Jack Roth and James Wallace. Featuring a screenplay by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan, it is produced by Jim Beach, Robert De Niro and Graham King and features creative input by John Ottman (music), Newton Thomas Sigel (cinematography), John Ottman (editing), Susie Figgis (casting), Aaron Haye (production design) and Julian Day (costumes). Release date in South Africa: December 14 2018.
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