Never Meet Your Heroes, Unless It’s On The Big Screen by Tom Beasley
As a film critic who sees in excess of 200 movies a year at the cinema, I watch a lot of biopics. Every year, dozens of films are made that delve into the lives of well-known or interesting figures in order to shed light on who they are or were as people. At the beginning of this year, Gary Oldman finally won an Oscar for his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour and the 2019 awards season will see Ryan Gosling competing for the same award after playing iconic astronaut Neil Armstrong in First Man. In fact, one of Gosling’s key competitors will be screen legend Robert Redford, who delivers a terrific performance in The Old Man and the Gun as real-life geriatric bank robber Forrest Tucker.
But the biggest biopic of this autumn, by a long way, was Bohemian Rhapsody. By now, you’ve almost certainly seen the film, which brings to the screen the story of Freddie Mercury – frontman of Queen and one of the most charismatic figures in the history of music. Its path to the cinema has been long, winding and difficult, whether it was in the multiple stars attached to the Freddie part – imagine what Sacha Baron Cohen would have done with the role – or the late in the day replacement of director Bryan Singer with British filmmaker Dexter Fletcher.
I write this, however, a week or two after the film’s debut in UK cinemas. It topped the box office, naturally, in its opening weekend with a mammoth £10m haul. Audiences clearly love the movie, and it’s easy to see why. Britain adores Queen as one of our most memorable and exciting rock bands and the wellspring of respect for Mercury as a frontman is enough to propel the film into the box office stratosphere. In common with many of the people I have spoken to about the movie, I had a really great time watching it and had to fight the urge to get on my feet and sing along during the climactic sequence, set at Queen’s truly iconic Live Aid performance from 1985.
The problem, though, is that I’m not sure the film is any good. I know that I enjoyed it, but everything about the movie screams problematic. It’s a very by-the-numbers biopic that messes with history in order to make sure its straightforward narrative arc holds water, as well as treating Mercury’s sexuality as if it was some sort of moral problem that deserved to be swept under the carpet, rather than a huge part of the man’s identity.
So why does the film work? Put simply, it’s because it’s Freddie Mercury. Along with many other people, I count Mercury as the most talented and compelling frontman of all time, which is a strong enough foundation on which to build a biopic. There’s something undeniably gripping and charming about seeing a musical hero brought to life on the big screen by a great acting performance – in this case, the wonderful Rami Malek.
And sometimes, that’s all a biopic needs. They can be an experience of joy and catharsis for fans of the subject – often a chance to see icons who have sadly passed away reinvigorated through fictionalised accounts of their lives. Some of them might only be for the fans, but when the fanbase is as big as that of Queen and Freddie Mercury, that doesn’t matter too much. I certainly went totally Radio Ga Ga for it.
© 2018 Tom Beasley
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist living just outside London and originally from Coventry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.