When I was a child, my mother would have to take us on long car journeys to see family. Queen Greatest Hits II always got an airing. It was full of energy, with enough pop hooks to grab a child’s attention and enough musical bravura to to warrant endless relistens. Often, instead of spending my pocket money on sweets/football stickers/whatever it is normal children spend money on, I’d save up and buy Queen albums on CD. I know the band inside out, and every Queen song (apart from the majority of Hot Space- apologies, disco fans) has a place in my heart.
There are a lot of Queen fans in the world. I get it. This is not an attempt to legitimize my take by claiming Queen fan credentials. However, it’s important for me to state just how much the band means to me, as it directly feeds into my experience of watching the film. With such an emotional attachment to every note, every high-pitch wail from Taylor and every squeal of Brian May’s guitar, the burden of expectation could have been to this film’s detriment.
But, as it turns out, this film is Taylor-made (pun intended) for people like me. It might not be a great film, and sometimes is even a bad one. But what it does do is celebrate Queen in the way I celebrate them, and love the band the way I love them.
And, because of this, it was perhaps one of the most moving experiences I’d had in a cinema in a long while.
First of all, let’s address the negatives: the film is often clumsy. Rami Malek has been rightly praised for his performance, but it takes a while for the fit of actor/character to work. In the early scenes, he seems to be in competition with his fake teeth to make more of an impact. And the fact that he has to lip-sync to Freddie’s voice is often distancing: while it doesn’t affect the in-your-face stage shows, it really doesn’t work in quiet moments when he is singing to himself, or writing songs on a piano.
There are also some howlers in the script which serve to wink at the audience rather than play to some internal logic. I really could do without moments like Freddie playing the opening bars to Bohemian Rhapsody and saying “I think it has potential.” My eyes couldn’t have rolled harder.
However, there is a strength to this film which everyone agrees upon: the live performances. All the actors do startling imitations of the original band, and it conveys all the energy, theatricality and thrill of watching a live act. I could have watched an entire film of them recreating Queen shows and still have begged for more. It may amount to little more than a pop video where you don’t even see the actual musicians synching to the music, and yet it manages to honour the band and the music so well that it filled me with joy.
These strengths and weaknesses are what the other critics have all outlined. But there are some other notable discussions about the film which are more complicated.
First of all, many say that the film does a disservice to Freddie Mercury as a gay icon. That his gay life is relegated to the ‘fall’ of a traditional rise-and-fall narrative. As a straight man, it is perhaps not for me to comment- and there are a multitude of pieces about this which I cannot refute, including Peter Knegt’s compelling criticisms. But I would say add that it was refreshing to see how his sexuality fuels his relationship with Mary- genuinely one of the most interesting love dynamics I’ve seen this year. And for me Gary Nunn also makes a convincing case in the Guardian for the fact that Mercury’s portrayal is still a step forward for LGBTQ+ cinema. After all, his homosexuality is normalised, and the film’s coyness seems to apply to both straight and gay relationships as far as I could tell. Yes, there is no pillow-talk between two men, which was a misstep given how much that is part of the storyline with Mary. But Freddie’s inspiring comeback at the end of the film is no way related to dispensing with gay relationships, but rather with finding the RIGHT gay relationship. It was all done in a rather silly, rushed way, but I do think that having this film be a box-office record for a queer lead is worthy of celebration, while I accept that many in the LGBT+ community feel differently.
Others have commented on the unfocused script which refers to aspects of Mercury’s life without ever fully delving into them. While I understand the criticism, I choose to view it more charitably. I see how the script admirably touches on many different aspects of his contradictory character, and find it commendable. It refuses to tie his motivations down to one particular aspect- whether it is his arrogance, loneliness, father-issues, sexuality or race- and for that it is actually more honest about his multi-faceted personality than many biopics allow themselves to be. Mercury remains an enigma, a bundle of contradictions- and I, for one, find that completely fitting. It may be at odds with the bombast of the live performances and the stomping celebrations of the band, but I feel that the portrayal of his character is less undercooked than- whisper it- subtle.
Overall, I was completely invested in this film. I knew every reference and every song. I was moved by Mercury’s story, and cheered for every bit of Queen fan service, no matter how cheesy. It’s an odd mix of a film. There’s much to criticise and much to celebrate. And yet I somehow managed to treasure it whole-heartedly all the same. Confused fan-service it may be; but, as one of those die-hard fans, I can only feel grateful for it.