Take it away, Anthony!
Extra teeth. That was the secret of Freddie Mercury, or, at any rate, of the singular sound he made. In “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a new bio-pic about him, Mercury (Rami Malek) reveals all: “I was born with four more incisors. More space in my mouth, and more range.” Basically, he’s walking around with an opera house in his head. That explains the diva-like throb of his singing, and we are left to ponder the other crowd-wooing rockers of his generation; do they, too, rely upon oral eccentricity? Is it true that Rod Stewart’s vocal cords are lined with cinders, and that Mick Jagger has a red carpet instead of a tongue? What happens inside Elton John’s mouth, Lord knows, although “Rocketman,” next year’s bio-pic about him, will presumably spill the beans.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” starts with the Live Aid concert, in 1985. That was the talent-heavy occasion on which Queen, fronted by Mercury, took complete command of Wembley Stadium and, it is generally agreed, destroyed the competition. We then flip back to 1970, and to the younger Freddie—born Farrokh Bulsara, in Zanzibar, and educated partly at a boarding school in India, but now dwelling in the London suburbs. This being a rock movie, his parents are required to be conservative and stiff, and he is required to vex them by going out at night to see bands.
If the film is to be trusted (and one instinctively feels that it isn’t), the birth of Queen was smooth and unproblematic. Mercury approaches two musicians, Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and Brian May (Gwilym Lee), in a parking lot, having enjoyed their gig; learns that their group’s lead singer has defected; and, then and there, launches into an impromptu audition for the job. Bingo! The resulting lineup, now graced with John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) on bass, lets rip onstage, with Freddie tearing the microphone from its base to create the long-handled-lollipop look that will stay with him forever. Queen already sounds like Queen, and, before you know it, the boys have a manager, a contract, an album, and a cascade of wealth. It’s that easy. As for their first global tour, it is illustrated by the names of cities flashing up on the screen—“Tokyo,” “Rio,” and so forth, in one of those excitable montages which were starting to seem old-fashioned by 1940.
As a film, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is all over the place. So is “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a song, yet somehow, by dint of shameless alchemy and professional stamina, it coheres; the movie shows poor Roger Taylor doing take after take of the dreaded “Galileo!” shrieks, bravely risking a falsetto-related injury in the cause of art. Anyone hoping to be let in on Queen’s trade secrets will feel frustrated, although I liked the coins that rattled and bounced on the skin of Taylor’s drum, and it’s good to watch Deacon noodle a new bass riff—for “Another One Bites the Dust”—purely to stop the other band members squabbling. The later sections of the story, dealing with Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis, are carefully handled, but most of the film is stuffed with lumps of cheesy rock-speak (“We’re just not thinking big enough”; “I won’t compromise my vision”), and gives off the delicious aroma of parody. When Mercury tries out the plangent “Love of My Life” on the piano, it’s impossible not to recall the great Nigel Tufnel, in “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984), playing something similar in D minor, “the saddest of all keys,” and adding that it’s called “Lick My Love Pump.”
The funniest thing about the new film is that its creation was clearly more rocklike than anything to be found in the end product. Bryan Singer, who is credited as the director, was fired from the production last year and replaced by Dexter Fletcher, although some scenes appear to have been directed by no one at all, or perhaps by a pizza delivery guy who strayed onto the set. The lead role was originally assigned to Sacha Baron Cohen (a performance of which we can but dream), although Malek, mixing shyness with muscularity, and sporting a set of false teeth that would make Bela Lugosi climb back into his casket, spares nothing in his devotion to the Mercurial. The character’s carnal wants, by all accounts prodigious, are reduced to the pinching of a waiter’s backside, plus the laughable glance that Freddie receives from a bearded American truck driver at a gas station as he enters the bathroom. With its PG-13 rating, and its solemn statements of faith in the band as a family, “Bohemian Rhapsody” may be the least orgiastic tribute ever paid to the world of rock. Is this the real life? Nope. Is this just fantasy? Not entirely, for the climax, quite rightly, returns us to Live Aid—to a majestic restaging of Queen’s contribution, with Malek displaying his perfect peacock strut in front of the mob. If only for twenty minutes, Freddie Mercury is the champion of the world.
Needless to say, a certain Shady Dame and I are going to see this tomorrow.
Have a great weekend, everybody!!!