For the first 25 years of my life The Doors and Queen were my two favorite bands. The Beatles overtook Queen when I was in my mid-20s, and now in my late 40s, there are a few more bands I like more than Queen (although they probably still crack my Top 10 list). So in the early ‘90s when Oliver Stone made a movie about The Doors, I was disappointed with how bad it was. (Jim Morrison spent the entire movie walking around stoned or drunk, and talking to people in song lyrics.)
In this movie, at least Freddie Mercury wasn’t doing that. Although most of the characters are speaking in dialogue that didn’t feel very authentic. And we mostly see Freddie hanging out with his cats, or in a studio or on stage. I would say that makes it perfect for a Queen fan, but…we saw Live Aid when it happened, and we all saw that Brazil concert with over 100,000 fans, which broke a record for the biggest crowd ever for a concert. Recreating these events on screen wasn’t necessary (not that they didn’t do an amazing job with almost half of the entire Live Aid set Queen did).
The Doors and Queen were both signed by Elektra records (not sure why Elektra was left out of this movie, and they just mention EMI). The Doors movie was being talked about for over a decade, and in the early 80s, John Travolta was attached to play Jimbo. The Queen movie took about eight years of development, and at one point, Sacha Baron Cohen was attached. He felt the other band members were meddling too much into the story. I initially thought Cohen would be a better choice than Rami Malek, but Malek was pretty dang good in this.
This movie also had to deal with not only actors being dropped, but a director (Bryan Singer) dropping out, after he disappeared for awhile, and then sexual harassment charges.
The Queen story in this movie starts in 1970, when Farrokh Bulsara (who would later change his name to Freddie Mercury) checks out the band Smile at a college gig. He’s working a baggage job at Heathrow Airport while going to art school. His art school days aren’t delved into, and it was disappointing when we see him sketching the Queen logo later. I knew he created it using the bands astrology signs, but did anybody else? That’s one of the many problems with this film. It doesn’t dig deep enough into anything; some critics are complaining they didn’t in regards to Mercury’s sexuality, but I was fine with how they covered that. Sure, they did tone done a lot, and left two out of the three out of the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” phrase. In fact, we really don’t see the other band members love lives. I know May got married and divorced, but it was never shown. The closest they got was drummer Roger Taylor sleeping next to two blondes on a tour bus.
But back to Smile. Freddie tells guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee, who looks and sounds just like him) he has written some songs for their band. They tell him it’s too late, as the singer just quit. That leads to Freddie becoming not only the songwriter, but also the singer. Since he doesn’t play bass, they bring in John Deacon (Joseph Mazello). Drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) completes the band, and they change their name to Queen. All that’s needed are some outfits for Mercury to wear on stage, enter Mary, who comes up with some clothing, eye liner, and becomes his long-time girlfriend. My wife said it made her cringe that Mary put eyeliner on him and came up with a “look” for him, even before he was in the band.
It seems success comes quickly for the band, and that means we’re whisked from scene to scene, showing studio sessions and concert stages. As a music lover, those moments can often be my favorites. For example, I was disappointed with the Brian Wilson movie Love & Mercy. John Cusack as Wilson is perhaps the weirdest casting in a music biopic since David Keith played Elvis (in the surprisingly cute movie Heartbreak Hotel). Paul Dano was terrific as the younger Wilson, and my point was…watching his genius in the studio, creating “Pet Sounds”…almost makes the movie worth the price of admission. So as a Queen fan, it’s a bit of fun to see them messing around with various sounds when recording their first record (coins on a drum set, swinging an amplifier around the room, etc.). It’s also intriguing to watch them record their operatic epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the rest of the “A Night at the Opera” album at a studio in the middle nowhere.
It’s just a shame the script is formulaic and rather shallow.
There are a few doses of humor. One of them comes when Mike Myers plays a record executive that’s channeling his Gong Show character. He doesn’t think Bohemian Rhapsody will be a hit, and wants to release “You’re My Best Friend” as the single. In these movies, we’re always supposed to hate the guy in the suit making decisions (I first saw this done in The Buddy Holly Story in 1978, although that producer caved to Holly’s genius). Yet the audience laughs when he talks about the weird opera sounds and lyrics he doesn’t understand, but also…the fact that radio stations play shorter songs. Those all seem like valid points, especially considering the song he chose to release as the single, made it to #16 on the charts in the U.S., #7 in England, #2 in Ireland and Canada, and charted in five other countries.
The other joke in that scene is when Myers says he doesn’t see people banging their heads in a car rockin’ out to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Anybody that remembers Wayne’s World, knows they did that (which also made the song a hit on the charts decades later). Those self-aware lines don’t work so well for me. They take me out of the movie.
It was funny because we heard the band arguing over the song “I’m in Love with My Car” (an awful tune), which the suits seem to like, thinking kids will…play it in their car.
Yet another comparison to The Doors movie, is the performance of the leads. Val Kilmer had the Jim Morrison hair, look, and swagger. Yet he didn’t show us many other aspects of Morrison (his intelligence, etc). Malek looks like Freddie…whether that’s with the long hair in the early days, or the mustache and jeans in the later years. Yet his demons are never really examined. You merely see him struttin’ around the studio drunk, singing the lyrics to “Another One Bites the Dust” after the bassist comes up with that famous riff. And it’s amazing how uninteresting it is, seeing them come up with ideas for their biggest hits. May telling the band he wrote “We Will Rock You” so the crowd can get involved and stomp their feet…with a quick edit showing crowds doing that at a concert…are rather underwhelming.
My wife, who liked this movie a lot more than me, brought up a good point about people laughing at some of the scenes and how it was insulting to Freddie, and not meant for humor. But to me, there were so many moments that could be looked at as mockery. For example, watching him on the phone to his girlfriend Mary (Lucy Boynton), all the while watching a truck driver walk into the bathroom at a truck stop. Freddie walks over and stands by the bathroom door, as if he’s George Michael. And just as The Doors movie made Morrison always walking around drunk, or with some swagger…Freddie seemed to always be walking around displaying his flamboyance. It seemed there was rarely another side to him, and for a guy that kept his homosexuality a secret, I’d think we’d see a more toned down Mercury when he wasn’t on stage or at a lavish party.
My wife at one point said about Malek (whom she loves on Mr. Robot), “With that wig, he looks more like Mick Jagger than Freddie Mercury.”
After she said that, I couldn’t see anybody but Jagger, until he went to the short hair and mustache in the late ‘70s era.
The movie had too many corny moments, whether that was in the dialogue (this was written by Anthony McCarten, who gave us the underwhelming biopics Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything). I have no clue why they decided to show the various places Queen played, with colorful fonts that flashed on the screen. At one point, I saw “Detroit” followed by “Tokyo.” I leaned into my wife and sarcastically said, “I’m beginning to think Queen has played all over the world.”
Listen, the songs are great. But we already knew that. So this movie should’ve given us a bit more insight into things. I wanted to know more about Freddie’s family (sister, mom and dad), or the bandmates’ wives and kids. I have a lot more fun watching the Queen tribute band Queen Nation (catch them if you have a chance).
This movie is for hardcore Queen fans only, but then…I brought a hardcore Queen fan and he was upset with some of the mistakes the movie made. That makes me think of Bohemian Rhapsody lyrics changed:
Is this the real life? Or a screenwriter’s fantasy? Go to the movies…an escape from reality (it was between those lines, or saying that Malek was just a “silhouetto of the man”).
2 ½ stars out of 5, but that’s because I’m a big Queen fan. It’s a lot like playing a “greatest hits” record. You like it, but not as much as when you heard these songs (and other gems that weren’t popular) for the first time.