Review: Bohemian Rhapsody (12A), 134 minutes *****

IN 1986, as a 14 year old, I went to see Queen at Wembley Stadium. It was my first gig, and it blew me away.

A great line-up (The Alarm, INXS, Status Quo all played support slots) and a stunning show by Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor capitalised on Queen’s remarkable appearance at Live Aid, one year earlier. Now, Bohemian Rhapsody tells the story of the band, the Live Aid gig, and Mercury’s remarkable life.

Speaking of the film some time ago, May said, on behalf of himself and Roger Taylor, "We’ve got to get it right". And they have. It’s one of the best films about music that I have seen. It’s moving, powerful, funny and endearing – all at once. The film (over two hours long) tracks the band’s history from the early 1970s to the Live Aid slot. The early section, showing Mercury endearing himself to May and Taylor after a gig by Smile (Queen’s forerunner) is wonderful.

Mercury’s battle with his sexuality is pivotal to the film. The woman he wrote Love Of My Life for, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) is depicted as the best friend he didn’t have as he moved towards a more gay lifestyle.

A brilliant early moment contrasts the band playing Fat Bottomed Girls while on tour in America with Mercury eyeing up a butch trucker. The film is not glassy-eyed about either the band or Freddie. Arguments about which songs would be used (unusually, all four members of the band contributed songs) is used to comical effect. While recording their masterpiece, A Night At The Opera, Roger Taylor is shown having a hissy fit about the possible exclusion of his song, I’m In Love With My Car.

The cast are excellent: Rami Malek is terrific as Mercury, capturing the facial tics that the singer had with his mouth (Mercury was born with teeth abnormalities) and giving a multi-dimensional performance of a complex man. Brian May (often in conflict with Mercury), and John Deacon, the phlegmatic bass player, are played well by Gwilym Lee and Joseph Mazello. Tom Hollander – who seems incapable of putting in a bad performance – is understated as Jim Beach, the quiet but attentive manager who replaced John Reid.

By the early 1980s, the band seemed to be unravelling. By then, they were superstars, but drugs and other antics were causing issues. The film shows a disastrous press conference for the Hot Space album, where journalists hone in on Mercury’s discomfort about his personal life.

We see a brilliant musician and performer, but also a man who is conflicted and torn; while the other members of the band enjoy wives and children, Mercury is often shown, alone, isolated, sadly flicking on the light in his luxurious London house for Mary (living nearby) to see.

While other people let Mercury down, the band are his family. "You need us," May says to Mercury at one point. And he had a point; like the other great British bands (The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who and Led Zeppelin), Queen were more than the sum of their parts, creating something really exciting that they could not have concocted apart.

The film glosses over the more unsavoury elements of Mercury’s life: his rapacious sexual energy on the gay scene of New York in the early 1980s isn’t very explicit, and his sad demise, wasting away from AIDS, isn’t dwelt on either, although the film makes clear the reasons for his death.

In the end, the film opts for triumphalism; it closes with the Live Aid sequence, and this is constructed with attention to the minutest detail (down to getting the backstage passes right). Blink and you’ll miss "in the background" references to David Bowie and U2.

It’s wonderful, stirring stuff. Fans of Queen, or of music generally, will enjoy a film that has been made with love.

Review by Miles Salter, York writer, musician and storyteller