26/10/18 12:06 Filed in: Reviews
Biopics are not easy to get right. Squeezing an entire life into two hours, with commercial considerations banging on the door… meaning, it usually has to be a PG13/12A rating, and you have a big story to tell, often of sex and drugs and rock and roll. Nine years in the making, with three leads, three screenwriters, two directors: these are not the ingredients that result in a gratifying portrayal of a human life. And with Freddie Mercury, lightning in a bottle personified, it was always going to be a fool’s errand. It’s a two-star film, at best, with a four-star performance. Rami Malek’s virtual channelling of Mercury just barely saves the film from total disaster.
First off, there’s a problem with what they’ve chosen to include: half the film is set in the 70s, and there are lengthy sequences of recordings, including of the nonsense masterpiece the film is named after. There are some people – myself included – who find the inner workings of recording studios grippingly fascinating. But I imagine the majority of an audience wants to see something else, even though I found those scenes fun, mostly because I was listening out for different vocal takes and such like. No doubt putting that much music in is a done deal when you have band members producing a film, but it doesn’t make for terribly interesting scenes. A great many exciting events happened to Queen, from their formation in 1970 to their sad, enforced end in 1991. With their first album out in 1973, the band recorded music for only 18 years, and Mercury has been gone for very nearly 27. So it seems cynical to attempt a biopic now, after all these years (original Queen fans + their offspring = double the audience), and the controversy, and firings, around it have hardly helped to cement a consistency of storytelling. Bryan Singer (who will shortly have an Esquire article expose him as a predator) has tried to do a good job, with help from the underrated Dexter Fletcher. And it is nearly impossible to cohere multiple satisfying narratives into two hours, especially with the subject gone. But there is no reason for the script to be this terribly poor. It shouldn’t be, with The Queen showrunner Peter Morgan’s original bolstered by The Theory of Everything’s Anthony McCarten. Why is it so bad? Freddie Mercury was passionate, generous, gifted, very funny, sometimes difficult and, yes, sex-driven, with a side of shy and vulnerable, and this is a meek, painfully sanitised exploration of his private life. I’m not saying I wanted the bathhouse-based director’s cut, but a bit more bite would have been great. His seven-year romance with his lifelong muse, and the woman to whom he left his grand home and half his wealth and royalties, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, doing well with bad writing) is covered in endless detail. Austin has not played any part in this film, understandably; indeed, since he died she has given only a handful of interviews, and her relations with the rest of the band, his friends and family are said to be tense. With one person gone, and the other unwilling to discuss the reality of a private relationship, the scenes between Malek and Boynton feel like basic coming-out-story melodrama, when the reality must have been much more complex. It is important to note that Mercury’s bisexuality is not washed over, at least. And nor is the gay side of his life, later on. It’s also correct that Austin should be given the credit and legitimacy in his life that she deserves, but it’s all rather bloodless. It also means that, unfairly, less importance is given to his relationship with the late Jim Hutton, the Irish barber (here a waiter, why?) who he also shared his life with for seven years, until the end. You can’t get private moments right without input from those who were there, of course, but they don’t even get close to making a decent job of it. The Hutton storyline is undercooked in the extreme, little more than a footnote, which is insulting to his memory, too (he died of cancer in 2010, aged 61; when Freddie died Mary had him evicted abruptly from the home they shared for years).
The band, even today, seem uncomfortable with his sexuality, with a recent interview with May discussing his ‘men friends’ alongside Austin. Understandably, if you lose both your friend and your career overnight it’s not something you ever get over. I’m just not sure that that discomfort should be shared beyond boilerplate rock-star autobiographies: such coyness has no place influencing the content of a film that’s should have largely not been about you. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) is hardly a ripe character for a biopic. He may be a musical god, but he’s a gentle, quite dull man who cares more about badgers, physics and stereoscopic photography than any person should – Lee manages to do miracles with the character, frankly. His dry humour comes across nicely. While bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello; the little lad from Jurassic Park, trivia fans) is imbued with a rather surprising amount of subtle personality by an actor who’s been doing his homework. But drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) should have been made much more of; he’s a spiky, no-bullshit, Tigger-like presence in real life, and his closeness with fellow hedonist Mercury doesn’t come across at all. The character is dull, and the actor is too, and it does Taylor a disservice. Let’s not talk about Mike Myers, in his Jeff Lynne costume. He was amusing as a composite character of a snooty record exec and their first manager Norman Sheffield. But he just seemed to be there so the band could say, ‘thanks for making the song big again in America via Wayne’s World.’
As for the ‘straightwashing’ the trailer was accused of: I didn’t find that to be true. I wasn’t expecting a Caligula-esque series of scenes set in London’s iconic 80s gay club Heaven, or any one of the myriad Munich bars that he spent most of his nights in starting from 1979 or so. A big studio picture is never going to allow that level of exploration of gay life, especially with the spectre of Aids hanging over the film like a black cloud. It did feel like a series of missed opportunities, however, to rip open the virulent media-led homophobia that he faced his whole life, and his fear of being outed.
Also a missed opportunity was a more rounded storyline for the villain of the piece, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). One can’t libel the dead, and this snake should have been written with much more narcissism. He drew Mercury away from the band and into drugs and long nights in dark rooms that ultimately proved his undoing. Glossed over, too, was his heartbreaking betrayal of Mercury, which he never recovered from. He sold his story to The Sun for £30,000 in 1987, outing the singer in the process (in the film this was a fictitious TV interview where he slings a racial slur at Mercury: never happened). Prenter may as well have a neon sign saying ‘danger: I can’t be trusted’ hanging above his head, but this terrific actor is wasted in an underwritten part. Two more great actors do wonders with average parts: Aiden Gillen does the best he can as the band’s 1970s manager John Reid, while Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, who guided the band at their imperial 1980s peak, does sardonic well. But everything should be sharper: the drama, writing, plotting.
One faultless aspect of this flawed film is the musical sequences. In this, we get perfection. The swirling, thrilled, sweaty crowds; the peerless music, sometimes overblown to the point of laughter, sometimes achingly beautiful, always decadent, works a treat. The live concert scenes are handled with great skill by Singer. These details, speaking from a fan’s perspective, are spot on. From the costumes to the settings, the performances are finely tuned. And Rami Malek comes close to saving the whole movie, somehow. The depth of understanding from this fine actor of his subject is critical. Immersion in such a life only works if your subject was layered, thrilling company, and it helps if there’s a creditable, exciting, possibly tragic, story to build on. Malek is given all that raw material to work with, and he runs away with it. There is no shortage of drama and dynamism and power on show. Embodying a beloved person is an impossible job, one that can go wrong without the right focus, or can veer too much in a Stars in Their Eyes direction. To inhabit a rounded portrayal of a real man, with very little offstage material to go on (Mercury did precious few interviews), is not an easy task, but Malek pulls it off and then some. He captures a perfect mix of bravado and vulnerability. The script makes a cheap shot about ‘having not enough time left’, sold to us as prescient but it made my eyes roll, yet he still manages to imbue these moments with the ending we know is coming, of a life over at 45. He beats the thin script into a pulp with sheer force of will. In particular, the big finish of the film, a full-length recreation of the band’s Live Aid performance, is breathtaking. I have no issue with the lack of descent depicted, that the film ends in 1985 rather than going toward deathbed drama. There are plenty of films, and documentaries, that show the cost of Aids in grisly extreme detail; it’s not needed here. And for those of us who lived through it well enough at the time, traumatised by seeing this extraordinary man turned into bones in front of our eyes, there is no need to portray it here for prurient interest. If you want to see what happened to Mercury, his devastating end, the video footage is available. It was a smart choice (badly handled, as I’ll get to later) to end the film at his life’s professional peak.
Much like the tedious Queen musical, We Will Rock You, here the music works and not much else does. And for Malek, it’s the star-making performance of a lifetime. But if you let a band produce a film about themselves it will have music-making, and their version of events, as its centre, rather than a truthful core about the person who has no ability to reply. Worst of all, the falsities on show here mostly in the final third are wild and reckless. And there is no need for them: his life was a thrill-ride without the need for embellishment. If you’ve gone to that much trouble to get a piece of recording studio equipment right, or the correct Japanese light in a recreation of his house, then why on earth would you allow complete lies to be in the film? I don’t mean something like a gig showing him crowd-surfing: that’s in the film, it was apparently not in the script; Malek just did it. Mercury never did that in his life. There are tons of small things like that which are wrong. That’s fine, a bit of exaggeration, who cares? It’s not a documentary. But the big stuff, you have to get it right.
The remaining band members’ judgement looms large: we’re normal Freddie, we have families, you have to slow down. Never mind that May cheated on his wife with groupies multiple times and just after Live Aid left his family. Never mind that Taylor shagged everything on the road that moved, unable to create any sort of stable relationship for decades. Oh, it’s Freddie and his ‘appetites’ that are destroying the band. They’re having normal heterosexual sex: the kind of sex Freddie has is the wrong kind. Their resentment of him beams through. I always thought it was grief. That the loss of their friend was something they never recovered from. It’s not. It’s anger, at his gayness destroying their careers. And it culminates in changing the truth for their own ends. And incidentally, if Brian and Roger are going to make a big deal about how Freddie’s solo career put the band in jeopardy, they might mention that they had already made three solo albums between them by that point. His solo record came out after Live Aid, not before. It’s one thing to put in a stupid press conference where Freddie is pressed on his sexuality while high (never happened). It’s a badly written scene but changes nothing that’s materially important. It’s another to indulge in a parallel universe fantasy.
And that leads me to the biggest, and most insidious, lie in the film. He is given his HIV diagnosis, for dramatic effect, just before Live Aid – as fuel for that career-defining performance. The real diagnosis happened two years after. This is sick, distasteful stuff, as is the fictitious meeting with an Aids patient covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions outside the doctor’s office. What were they thinking? Everyone involved in this film should hang their heads in shame for making it happen. The band has thrown their friend under the bus to make themselves look good and benevolent for letting him back in the band (never happened).
He put on that 20-minute performance of his life at Wembley Stadium because he was fucking remarkable. Not because he had been told he was going to die. This messianic trash, this ‘I’m going to die for you, audience’, cheapens the power of the scene, the film, and worst of all it cheapens his life and death. Malek plays it, despite it being nearly shot-for-shot, with a determined face: I’ll make this the show of my life because I have limited time left. Watch the real thing.
It’s not determination. It’s joy. It’s conviction. This guy knows he is doing the 20 minutes of a lifetime. A year later he is said to have started to feel unwell, telling everyone the tour they undertook was to be his last. He avoided tests, in fact, for another year, out of fear. Then he was calm about it, wanted no sympathy. Just wanted to get on with it, make music until he dropped. This is an era of ‘my feelings matter over your facts’. Well, no. Facts matter.
This Live Aid fantasy was the filmmakers’ insulting solution to dealing with his illness? They made the correct, quite brave, decision to not do his death onscreen. But the fix for this problem was not to openly lie. It was not to create an alternative timeline that ruined a good idea with a bad one.
It could just have been a post-script: you don’t change history and a person’s literal HIV status for show. It could also have had a braver end: Hutton was backstage at a Queen show for the first time, and Freddie was in love, after being lonely, and taken advantage of by hangers-on, for so long. Finally, he’d found someone to whom he could come home to, who nursed him to the end. But I guess a gay love story isn’t going to sell the way the fake inspiration of illness does. It makes me so angry that people will watch this and think it’s true. I hope they seek out what really happened, I hope they seek out the real thing and consign this version of events to the bin. Freddie Mercury deserved better than this film.