“Bohemian Rhapsody” – Slight Return

I have previously mentioned going to see the brilliant film Bohemian Rhapsody. At some point afterwards my beloved reminded of an episode in the Queen story that somehow failed to make its its way into the film: their concerts in Sun City. For the benefit of younger readers, Sun City is a South African holiday resort, which in the apartheid era was located in what was then the faux independent “homeland” of Bophuthatswana. Queen were one of many international acts to be lured to Sun City or South Africa by apartheid money (others include Tina Turner, Status Quo, Black Sabbath, Joe Dolan, and Phil Coulter) but Queen played there in 1984, when no one could really say there were ignorant of the evils of apartheid South Africa. At the time Queen were also one of the biggest bands in the world and could hardly claim to have needed the money. Their attempted justifications at the time were weak (bullshit about not being political and being happy to play to anyone who wanted to see them). In a feat of complete political tone-deafness they even played ‘I Want To Break Free’ to their audience of white South Africans.

Queen also licensed ‘We Will Rock You’ for a Sun City advertisement. It’s something else.

Queen’s appearance in Sun City was I think important in galvanising artistic opposition to apartheid and led to the Artists Against Apartheid record. Playing in South Africa became increasingly problematic for artists, a situation that continued until apartheid’s fall.

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Queen arriving in South Africa (retroculturati: Queen’s Sun City Sin)

“Bohemian Rhapsody”: a morning at the cinema

As you know, there is a film currently in the cinemas called Bohemian Rhapsody, which purports to tell the story of popular band Queen. It has been out for a while and I only got to see it recently. Discussion around the film had made me interested in it, with the most intriguing aspect of this being that generally its critical reception had been a bit lukewarm while reaction from audiences was extremely positive. Not everyone can be right on this and I was curious as to where sound judgement lay. So eventually when a morning gap in my incredibly busy life presented itself I sneaked off to the cinema to see it.

I mostly see films in the Irish Film Institute or the near-to-me Lighthouse, both of which have pretensions towards being art house cinemas even if they sneak a lot of mainstream fare onto their screens. But Bohemian Rhapsody was on in Cineworld, which is part of some big cinema chain, and while Cineworld does show some stuff from the edges it is unashamedly a commercial cinema. The trailers before Bohemian Rhapsody were an interesting reminder of how terrible the great morass of mainstream films can be, with our options for future cinema trips including some terrible piece of heartwarming gloop about a couple who adopt three children, an Oscar-tipped formulaic buddy film about a white guy driving a black concert pianist around the South (a film which in premise had at least the potential to be interesting but which in realisation appears to have gone for the laziest and most Academy Award friendly approach to its subject), and some film about a British woman who takes up wrestling (which might actually be semi-OK just maybe, as it features impressive rising actor Florence Pugh in the main role). But my overall sense from the Cineworld trailers was that Cineworld is generally best avoided if you actually like films.

Bohemian Rhapsody itself… well, it starts with the 20th Century Fox fanfare and logo, but something does not seem right about the fanfare, with the music sounding distorted, somehow different from the original… and then it hits: the fanfare is being played on guitar by Brian May. Enveloped by Queen’s Live Aid performance, the film then goes on to tell the story of the band or rather of its singer, Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek). The plot is pretty formulaic in some regards: the band forms, becomes successful, then tensions lead to Freddie heading off to record solo albums only for the band to then reform to play their triumphant Live Aid set. However because of the focus on Freddie there are other angles that maybe would not come up in more usual rock biographies: his Zoroastrian upbringing and conservative family background and then his coming to terms with his own sexuality.

Focussing the film on Freddie makes obvious sense. His charisma makes him more interesting than the other band members and his personal journey lends the film a narrative focus that one based on “And then we released another record” might lack. That said, the other members of the band still get enough screen time to be established as actual people rather than Sleeperblokes, with John Deacon (played by Joseph Mazzello), the slightly forgettable fourth member of the band (for all that he wrote some of their biggest hits) coming across as particular roffler, playing against the character’s boring reputation. I was also impressed by the way even minor characters seemed to have a bit of depth to them, with Paul Prenter (the film’s main villain, a shifty music biz type who starts leeching off Freddie and turning him against his bandmates) still getting an impressive speech about growing up gay in Belfast. Likewise, ending the film with Live Aid also makes narrative sense, as Queen’s concert performance then was a triumph and ceasing at that point avoids the embarrassing slide into shite of the band’s records in the latter part of the 1980s.
The film’s musical numbers still pack a punch. Even if you found the narrative a bit trite the short plot interludes before the next big tune would be worth the wait (assuming you are not one of those people who hate Queen). But the dramatic side I nevertheless found very powerful, with the contrast between the still pretty reactionary times in which Queen flourished contrasting with Freddie’s own flamboyant yet masked sexuality. Much of the scenes involving Freddie were to me extremely moving, whether his discovery that he has HIV and his revealing of this to the band, his relationship with one-time fiancée and close friend Mary Austin (played by Lucy Boynton), or his reconciliation with his parents on the morning of Live Aid. Readers may have me down as a hard-bitten cynic, but I have not cried so much at a film since the opening of Up (the Disney-Pixar film, not the Russ Meyer classic). I also liked all the cats.

The film is of course not without its critics. It does rather downplay the bacchanalian excess of Queen in the 1970s, or at least suggests that bacchanalian excess was Freddie’s thing and a matter that the other band members found a bit tiresome. The film does not feature any dwarfs carrying trays of cocaine on their heads (perhaps due to political correctness). That said, the film does pretty much establish that no cracked plate was safe from the attentions of Roger Taylor, but there is still a sense that apart from Mercury the other members of the band were more interested in nights in with a cup of cocoa than the temptations offered to successful rock bands. But whatever. There is also the criticism that the film is tacitly homophobic, focussing over much on Freddie’s relationship with Austin and peddling a gay = sad line. I’m not sure I buy this; Mercury’s relationship with Austin genuinely does seem to have been the defining relationship of his adult life (she minded his cats while he was on tour and he also left most of his money to her), so it would be strange for the film not to feature her. And the times when the film was set were not necessarily great ones for those drawn to same-sex love, with decriminalisation still recent and then disease cutting a swathe through the gay community. As far as I can recall, Freddie Mercury never actually came out as such, though gradually people came to register that he was not actually the heterosexual action man that some of his followers saw him as; I wonder if perhaps that might have been because like with George Michael the public adoption of a gay persona would have caused familial ructions.

There are other oddities with the film… like it being a complete work of fiction. It presents the Live Aid concert as a triumphant reunion for Queen, with the recently HIV diagnosed Freddie playing the gig to give himself a legacy (‘Right thoughts, right words, right actions’, as he says to his father, quoting a Zoroastrian motto). Yet Queen never actually split up, playing the last gig of their previous tour only two months or so before Live Aid. And Freddie appears not to have told his bandmates that he was HIV positive until 1989 and may not even have contracted the disease until after Live Aid. But hey, real life is complicated and often too messy for narratives.

The film has also attracted controversy because its original director Bryan Singer has attracted Bad Person accusations; Singer was sacked as director for other reasons and the film finished by Dexter Fletcher, but his name remains on the picture. I know people jump different ways on issues like this, but for me an art work is separate from the person or persons who made it and these credible allegations are not going to stop me enjoying a film. With film in particular I am always struck by how they are a collective endeavour produced by a great many people, and to me it seems deeply problematic to junk a film because one of those people has been credibly accused of bad things. But as they say, YMMV.

So yeah, don’t believe the rumours (unless you have heard rumours that the film is v good). Go and see Bohemian Rhapsody, it is amazing. Maybe like me you will leave the cinema and rush off to buy a copy of the band’s greatest hits.

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Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury (Film Comment – Film of the Week: Bohemian Rhapsody)