Is this the real life? No, it’s just fantasy…

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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Beelzebub had a devil set aside for me recently while I spent most of 24 hours travelling with a particular airline from Sri Lanka to Scotland.  The set-aside devil was the airline’s in-flight movie service, which was mostly composed of tired old rubbish like Johnny English Strikes Again (2018), while the only decent offerings were stuff like Black Panther (2018) that I’d already seen. 

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Finally, to take my mind off the tedium of the flight, the cramped-ness of my seat and the occasional unnerving shaking that outside air-turbulence would subject the plane to (“Thunderbolts and lightning / Very, very frightening!”), I gave in and watched Bohemian Rhapsody.  This was last year’s biopic of Queen, the 1970s / 1980s rock band who remain fabulously popular today even though they’ve been creatively inert since 1991 when their singer Freddie Mercury passed away.  I watched the film reluctantly, knowing that the critics had been at best lukewarm and at worst scathing about it. 

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I suppose, I thought, I can’t be too picky…  “Because I’m easy come, easy go / A little high, little low / Any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me / To mee-eee….

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Actually, Bohemian Rhapsody has earned (as of a week ago) 861 million dollars around the world, despite the critics turning up their noses at it.  This is in keeping with the great Queen divide.  Back in the days when they were a properly functioning band, people I knew who considered themselves serious and knowledgeable connoisseurs of music would tell me that though they tried to be broad-minded, they just couldn’t stomach bloody Queen, whom they saw as purveyors of bloated, corny, stomp-along, guitar-twiddling shite.  Meanwhile, other folk, who bought at most three CDs a year and barely knew the difference between Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley and Reg Presley – the majority of the British population in other words – believed Queen were the absolute bees knees and anyone voicing a negative opinion of the band was just “a big disgrace / kicking their can all over the place.”  So this chasm between what the cultural intelligentsia thought of Queen and what the ordinary masses thought of them is nothing new.

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Incidentally, I have to say I found it ironic how popular Queen were in the 1970s and 1980s among guys who styled themselves as straightforward, unpretentious, down-to-earth, laddish, maybe a bit unreconstructed and probably a bit homophobic.  They’d punch you in the face if you suggested they might be into anything involving ‘puffs’.  But after a few seconds of hearing the shamelessly camp Freddie Mercury crooning, “Oooh, you make me live… / Oooh, you’re my best friend!”, they’d be hugging each other, be singing along in cracked-with-emotion voices and have tears rolling down their cheeks. 

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It’s telling that in his memoir The Long Hard Road out of Hell (1998), Marilyn Manson recalls how at his Christian school in Ohio, pupils received regular lectures about the evils of heavy metal and hard rock music – and the band those Christian teachers seemed to fear and hate most all was Queen, due to the effect that Freddie’s sexually-ambiguous prancing and preening might be having on the sons of God-fearing America.

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Anyway, watching Bohemian Rhapsody, I certainly felt there was plenty wrong with it.  The problem with building a dramatic narrative out of Queen’s story is that there’s hardly any drama in it.  They got together in 1970, had a monster hit with Bohemian Rhapsody-the-single in 1975 and then stayed at the top for the next 16 years, their popularity seemingly impervious to the coming and going of musical fads like disco, punk, New Romanticism, goth, ska, the Mod revival, the Madchester scene, rap, techno, hair metal and grunge.  No doubt the late 1980s and early 1990s were traumatic for them when Freddie was diagnosed as HIV positive, became sick and died from AIDS in 1991, but the film doesn’t hang around long enough to chart those final years.  Rather, it ends on the high note of Queen’s famously barnstorming performance at the Live Aid concert at Wembley in July 1985.

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Lacking real historical drama, the film tries to generate some by playing fast and loose with the facts.  It depicts the band as having effectively broken up by 1985 thanks to Freddie’s out-of-control ego and the other band-members’ intransigence and lack of adventurousness, with the Live Aid concert being their last chance to pull themselves together and prove to the public that they’re still relevant.  As a plot device this is lame – and, factually, it’s nonsense because no such schism had appeared in the real band.  I remember them being ubiquitous during the year before Live Aid because of the success of their The Works album and singles like Radio Ga Ga and I Want to Break Free.   Another liberty with the truth (and the film has many of these) is a big emotional moment before they take the Wembley stage when Freddie tells the others he’s HIV positive.  In reality, he didn’t know this until 1987.

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From mentalfloss.com

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Conversely, the stuff that might have generated some drama, i.e. the band’s moral warts and carbuncles, are discretely airbrushed away, which probably has something to do with Queen’s lead guitarist and drummer Brian May and Roger Taylor being the film’s ‘creative consultants’.  So we get nothing about, for instance, their decision to play some lucrative gigs at the Sun City complex in Bophuthatswana, South Africa, during the apartheid era, which landed them on a United Nations blacklist; or the fact that in late 1985 they released a supposedly Live Aid-inspired song called One Vision and then kept all the profits for themselves.  No wonder they used to sing, “I want it all / I want it all… / And I want it now.

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Also doused in a tankerload of whitewash is the issue of Freddie’s promiscuity.  In reality, in 1984, Freddie bragged to the DJ Paul Gambaccini with hedonistic and – considering the times – reckless abandon: “Darling, my attitude is ‘f**k it’.  I’m doing everything with everybody.”  (Later, Gambaccini reflected, “I’d seen enough in New York to know that Freddie was going to die.”)  But in Bohemian Rhapsody he’s presented as a victim.  Insecure about his sexuality, he’s led astray by his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who lures him into a world of partying, orgy-ing and general dissolution.  In another clumsy move to tie everything in with Live Aid, the film has Mercury firing Prenter shortly before the concert.  But the real Prenter didn’t get his marching orders until 1986, one year afterwards.

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Despite everything, though…  I did enjoy the film.  Sort of. 

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It has an endearing cast: not just Rami Malek as Freddie – who, in a crowd-pleasing move by the Academy, picked up the Oscar for Best Actor the other day – but also Gwilym Lee as May, Ben Hardy as Taylor and Joe Mazello as the band’s quiet but affable bassist John Deacon.  It helps that these young actors actually resemble the band members they’re playing and the physical quirks that made Queen seem a little more human, like Freddie’s oversized incisors and May’s bombed-out buzzard’s nest of a hairdo, are lovingly recreated. 

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Also, Mike Myers has a neat supporting role as a record executive called Ray Foster, who apparently wasn’t a real person but a composite of various real-life executives who tried to put a stick in the band’s creative spokes.  Equipped with frizzy hair, sunglasses, a hideous woollen tank top and yet another provincial accent from the Mike Myers version of Britain, Foster gruffly objects to the idea that Bohemian Rhapsody-the-song be released as a single: “It goes on forever.  Six bloody minutes!”  To which Freddie retorts: “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever.”

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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The most enjoyable parts for me, however, were the script’s clunking attempts to foreshadow some of the band’s biggest hits.  It was fun to see how many micro-seconds it took me to work out which song they were talking about.  For example, when Freddie starts rabbiting on about how he wants to do a rock song with opera in it…  It’s Bohemian Rhapsody!  Or when May says he wants to write a song where the crowd can join in by clapping their hands and stamping their feet…  It’s We Will Rock You!  Or when John Deacon horrifies the others by proposing they do a disco tune…  It’s Another One Bites the Dust

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This foreshadowing got to the point where I expected to hear an exchange like: “What, David Bowie wants to record with us?  That makes me nervous.  I feel under pressure already!”  “Wait, I have an idea for a title…”  Or: “Writing film scores can’t be too difficult. In fact, I bet I could write one in a flash.” “Well, funny you should say that, because Dino De Laurentiis happens to be producing a new movie…”     

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To sum up: I found Bohemian Rhapsody dumb, superficial, bombastic and somewhat problematic, but also fun and entertaining and even uplifting in a slightly tacky way.  Which is appropriate, because that’s very much how I find Queen.

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