Bohemian Rhapsody

Rocketman

25/05/10

Rock star biopics are big business of late. The rather pedestrian (and factually flawed) Bohemian Rhapsody absolutely cleaned up at the box office and even garnered some ill-deserved awards into the bargain. Rocketman has the same director as Bo Rhap – or, at least, Dexter Fletcher steered the former film to fruition after Bryan Singer was obliged to step away from it. But Rocketman almost serves as an object lesson in how entertaining this genre can be when the filmakers have the balls to step away from the obvious and offer up something infinitely more experimental.

This is a fantasia, in its purest form, something that dares to take Elton John’s life story and play around with it. Ironically, in the process, it manages to get closer to the truth of the man behind the myth than Bo Rhap ever managed with Freddie Mercury.

When we first meet Elton, he’s attending a therapy session, dressed as a bright red devil, having just walked away from an important gig – and then, in flashback, we encounter young Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley), strugglng to obtain affection from his distant parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), establishing a distance between them that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Reginald learns he has an aptitude for playing the piano and an ability to effortlessly pick up any tune he hears. Pretty soon, he is older Reg (Kit Connor) and, in the space of one breathless fairground dance routine, he’s grown up to be Taron Egerton. We follow his career: his meeting with kindred spirit, Bernie Taupin (Jaimie Bell), his signing with hard-nosed business manager, Dick James (Stephen Graham), and his love affair with the cruelly manipulative John Reid (Richard Madden).

There’s his career making gig at LA’s Troubador Club and then all the manic excesses of rock hedonism are unleashed – alcoholism, drug and sex addiction, bulimia, that disastrous attempt at marriage… you name it, it’s all encompassed in a series of inventively staged scenes, backed by a seemingly endless collection of solid gold songs. Ironic then, that the film’s most effective moment has Elton belting out a cover version of The Who’s Pinball Wizard, while his piano spins giddily around and he goes through a whole collection of iconic costume transformations.

This film doesn’t attempt to cover EJ’s entire career, ending after his long spell in rehab and his triumphant return with I’m Still Standing, but it’s endlessly entertaining and doesn’t drag for a moment, not even through the inevitable nods to redemption at its conclusion. I am properly engaged from start to finish. Oh, and importantly – I think –  that’s actually Taron Egerton singing all the songs, uncannily nailing EJ’s distinctive phrasing, without it ever feeling like an impersonation.

With so many reasons to go and see it, Rocketman is in serious danger of giving the rock biopic a good name. And Dexter Fletcher is now clearly the go-to man for musicians with a story to tell.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Bohemian Rhapsody

10/11/18

There seems to be a bit of a Greatest Showman buzz about this film. Most critics have been decidedly sniffy about it, accusing it of glossing over some of Freddie Mercury’s darker traits, as well as his bisexuality. Audiences, on the other hand, have eagerly embraced it, claiming it as a five star picture. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between these extremes.

It’s a competent biopic, with a mesmerising central performance from Rami Malek that goes way beyond mere impersonation. He fully inhabits the character of Freddie Mercury and it’s interesting to conjecture how the film might have fared if it had stuck with its original lead, Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s hard to believe anyone could have done it more justice. Still, for all that, there are missteps in the mix and, just like The Greatest Showman, this so-called ‘true story’ takes some sizeable liberties.

We first meet Freddie in 1970, when he’s still Farrokh Bulsara, working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport and, in his spare time, virtually stalking local band, Smile, which features Brian May (Gwilym Lee) on lead guitar and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) on drums. When the band’s singer departs to join another outfit, the way is open for Freddie to offer his services as vocalist and songwriter. After a slightly shaky start, and the addition of bass player, John Deacon (Ray Mazello), the band soon have a record deal and are on the way to a brilliant career. Freddie, of course, woos and marries the ‘love of his life,’ Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), something that proves rather awkward when he latterly arrives at the conclusion that he’s bisexual.

To give the screenwriters their due, they don’t exactly ignore Mercury’s darker side, particularly during the period where he leaves the band to embark on an ill-fated solo career (although, in reality, that break up never actually happened). He is shown to be a loose canon, indulging in the excessive lifestyle that ultimately led to his untimely death. Even here there are untruths. The film wants us to believe that Freddie had his HIV diagnosis before he appeared at Live Aid. He didn’t. Also, the gig, which took place in 1985, is depicted here as some kind of a reunion for the band, but actually they’d been recording their album The Works only the year before and had just toured it all over the world.

Of course, changing the truth for dramatic effect is not exactly a new phenomenon, but what about those missteps I mentioned? Well, for one thing, the other members of Queen seem incapable of speaking any of their lines without throwing in some exposition, just in case we’re unsure of what’s happening at any given time. For another, the clunky scenes where Freddie interacts with his Zoroastrian parents, Bomi and Ger, are decidedly mawkish. There’s also a cameo by Mike Myers as (fictional) EMI record executive ‘Ray Foster’, who denounces the titular single as ‘too long for the radio’ in a cod Northern accent that borders on caricature. This leads to the band walking out on their record label. (Again, this didn’t happen.) In the end, it’s these liberties that niggle me more than anything else. When you’ve got a story as amazing as this one, why muddy the waters by adding stuff that never actually occurred?

Of course, you can forgive a lot when you have the kind of soundtrack that’s offered here, featuring pretty much all of Queen’s biggest hits – and the decision to end the film with an uncanny twenty minute recreation of the band’s appearance at Live Aid is a clever mood, sending audiences out on a high. Rami Malek’s performance is the kind of flashy role that can attract Oscar attention, and I won’t be remotely surprised if he gets a nomination next year – but to my mind,  Bohemian Rhapsody represents a bit of a missed opportunity.

In the end, it’s a decent biopic, but not an entirely convincing one.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney