Film and drama

Screen Themes: Bohemian Rhapsody vs Live Aid

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Is this the real life, or is this fantasy? Entertainment editor John Turnbull asks the big questions as he checks out Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and the band’s iconic performance at Live Aid.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Partially directed by Bryan Singer (2018)

Music biopics are a tricky thing. They tend to follow a similar path — charting the progression of an artist from young misfit to creative genius. The formula has been repeated time and time again, sometimes with entertaining results (Walk the Line, Straight Outta Compton), but more often with unabashed hagiography, as was the case with the near-unwatchable Jamie Foxx vehicle, Ray.

The one commonality with music bios appears to be a sanitisation of the artist's life, from the playing down of the misogyny of NWA or the deep contempt for women held by Ray Charles and, unfortunately, the same holds true for Bohemian Rhapsody. This is a deliberately PG rendition of Freddie Mercury’s life, downplaying the excessive drug use in favour of winking references, the most egregious examples being the omission of the nude bicycle race and the omission of the dwarves with cocaine trays strapped to their heads from that famous party.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some fabulous things about Bohemian Rhapsody, chief among them the performance of star Rami Malek. The Mr Robot star absolutely nails his performance as Freddie Mercury, despite the challenge of acting through some truly heinous fake teeth. British actor Gwilym Lee is also spectacular as guitarist Brian May, with the rest of the cast struggling to make an impact. Needless to say, the music is also amazing because, of course, it is. This is Queen we’re talking about.

On the downside, this is clearly a movie made by two band members, as bassist John Deacon is treated as a running joke. There is also a weird vein of homophobia that runs through the movie, particularly in the depiction of manager Paul Prenter, an unnecessary villain who is saddled with every gay cliché imaginable. The appearance of avowed Queen fan Mike Myers as record company boss Ray Foster is also very distracting, not helped by the fact that Myers can’t seem to resist doing his Fat Bastard accent.

One of the odd things about Bohemian Rhapsody concerns director Bryan Singer, who was fired during filming following repeated unexplained absences from set. Producing studio 20th Century Fox replaced Singer with Dexter Fletcher (that’s right, the guy from Press Gang), yet Singer received sole director credit and is a key part of Fox’s current Oscar push. This seems an odd choice considering Singer’s publicized spat with Rami Malek and run in with the #metoo movement, after allegedly raping a 17-year-old aspiring actor in 2003.

Queen at Live Aid (1985)

I was 11 years old when Live Aid happened. I didn’t watch all of it (after all, what 11-year-old really wants to watch Status Quo?), but I remember being transfixed by the performance of one band in particular; Queen.

With only 25 minutes and amidst some of the biggest bands in the world, Queen proved once and for all that they were the masters of stadium rock and audience engagement. Kicking off with a slightly truncated version of Bohemian Rhapsody (without the operatic bit because that was apparently too hard), Freddie and the band have the audience in the palm of their hand from beginning to end.

At a time when Queen hadn’t played together for months, while Freddie had been off recording solo debut Mr Bad Guy, it’s somewhat remarkable that Queen were able to steal the show. But steal the show they did, making the follow up performance (a partially pre-recorded duet between David Bowie and Mick Jagger) feel decidedly underwhelming. Worse still was the Led Zeppelin reunion with “Mr. Middle of the Road” Phil Collins on drums, a performance described by Robert Plant as horrendous.

In all likelihood, there will never be another band like Queen. The musical landscape has moved on and while we’re still lucky enough to encounter the occasional hyper-talented weirdo (I’m looking at you, Lady Gaga), it seems that the majority of people prefer the auto-tuned vacuousness of singers like Post Malone, recently voted favourite male artist of 2018 at the American Music Awards. Urgh.

The Verdict

If you’re looking for a slickly produced music biopic to fill a couple of hours, you could do far worse than Bohemian Rhapsody. It looks good, sounds great and includes some iconic moments from one of the greatest singers and frontmen of all time. It’s just a tiny bit… vanilla, really.

If, on the other hand, you fancy seeing that great singer in action (for free in the comfort of your home, no less) then I recommend you click the link above and check out Queen’s performance at Live Aid. The only thing that could possibly make it better is if it was longer.

Bohemian Rhapsody — 7/10

Queen at Live Aid — 9/10

Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).

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