Twenty seven years after his death, Freddie Mercury radiates in our culture like few other figures. He and Queen crafted songs which have become the bedrock of our collective musical taste, daring and eclectic in ambition and style. As a figurehead for the band, he was unashamedly unique and authentic. If only this film had risen to his challenge and shown similar courage, we’d have a biopic that would properly honour his legacy.
The script tries to span 15 years in 134 minutes, from Freddie’s beginnings as a teenage immigrant to the UK to Queen’s iconic 1985 Live Aid performance. As a result, we move through events at breakneck pace. Difficulties arise and evaporate within a couple of lines, characters are brought in and shepherded out seemingly at random. This may be because there is simply too much to cover, but the film settles for the obvious biopic cliches at every step.
The script reflects this tell, don’t show approach. The band gratuitously explains their musical ideas at every moment, making supposedly daring yet vague declarations like “we’ll mix genres, we’ll cross boundaries” and “formulas are a waste of time”. They even helpfully finish each other’s sentences – “we’re a family”, one says, “but no two of us are the same” another helpfully adds.
The film’s failures are even more stark in the light of the story’s enormous potential. By the end when Freddie sings, ‘It’s been no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise’, you ought to believe him more. After moving from Zanzibar to London with his family at 18, he changes his name from Farrokh Bulsara and embarks on a path wildly different from the one his conservative parents imagined for him.
Then there’s his fascinating relationship with Mary Austin, his one-time fiancee and lifelong closest confidant. Starting well before he found fame and continuing past his realisation of his own sexuality and the breakdown of their relationship, their friendship is what keeps him together, but it feels like the film spends a long time developing this relationship with very little payoff.
The film then hurries over Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis, and how it shakes him out of his drug and party induced torpor, returning him to his life’s passion while simultaneously taking his life away. To say the script doesn’t even approach the nuances and tensions of these situations is an understatement. There’s a gleaming mansion of material here for the script to play with, butit’s too dazzled by its glare to ever findout what’s really inside.
What comes to the rescue is Queen’s music and Freddie Mercury himself. Rami Malek puts in a brilliant performance, attempting and largely succeeding at embodying a near-inimitable figure who’s seared into our cultural consciousness. Even during the prologue, as he struts up to the stage at Live Aid in that iconic white vest, it’s impossible not to feel the electric bolt of a realisation hit. Here, in front of you, is an icon like no other, with all his power and vivacity.
The moments when he’s on stage are the film’s most arresting. The script can give him lines like ‘I’m a performer’ and ‘I’m going to be who I was born to be’ as many times as it wants, but it’s only when his eyes light up at Live Aid and he dominates the stage, chest puffed out, revelling in the joy of the music and the crowd, that we actually see it.
These musical scenes turn the film around in many ways – Queen’s greatest hits never disappoint. But the main feeling on leaving the cinema is one of wasted potential. That’s not something you could say of Freddie’s output in his short but remarkable life