The long-troubled biopic about Queen front-man Freddie Mercury has received a lukewarm reception from critics. Many members of the intelligentsia, that most hated of gentsias, have complained about its iodine depiction of a troubled and complicated rock idol, about how it may have distorted the actual timeline a bit to dial up the drama and the stakes, how it glosses over some of the headier issues related to HIV, sexual stigma and marginalized groups. Yet, the people have seen this film and made known their pleasure: they loved it.
It’s coasting toward a $300 million box office, with a lot of that coming from overseas audiences. I can tell you, I watched it here in Yogyakarta and not only was the theater quite crowded, but people kept belting out the tunes like it was a singalong. I mean, I get it - karaoke is like an addiction in this country. But at a certain point, singing along to a classic Queen rock anthem in the middle of a movie theater where some people are just trying to enjoy a mediocre biopic crosses a few lines does it not? Anyway, the point is Queen transcends time and place. Their music is legend, and the whole world knows it.
The movie itself, as a biopic, is fairly middling. Biopics generally are. This one is better than most because it does lean so heavily into the music. Rami Malek does a great job at an almost impossible task - bringing Freddie Mercury back to life - but the real star of this movie is the music, front and center. It is so, so good. And the film is basically a fairly faithful Best Hits anthology that takes us through the band’s modest beginnings, up to their rock-star peak, and then ends on a truly virtuoso and amazing recreation of the legendary performance at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid. That scene alone is worth the ticket, recreated in meticulous detail, using a lot of the actual recorded music from the show. It’s great. It’s moments like that where the greatness of Queen is just impossible to ignore, even when you know you are watching a fabricated Hollywood echo of what greatness truly was.
Ultimately it is the music that drives the movie forward, and the unabashed cheesy cornball celebration of these tunes, even as it clocks in at a rather lengthy 2+ hours, because you know that We Are The Champions is right over the next little hump of plot. And to be fair, the plot moves along quickly enough, condensing several decades of music history into feature length runtime. But the plot is also not particularly compelling, learning toward cookie-cutter shortcuts (like how the band invented their turn toward crowd-pleasing rock anthems one gloomy morning during a spontaneous bout of toe-tapping) while hitting all the beats you’d expect from a biopic. Freddie and his sexuality. Freddie overcoming the doubts of his straight-laced father. Freddie and tensions with his bandmates. Freddie and fame. Freddie and drugs.
The movie was in development for a long time. Sacha Baron Cohen was originally attached to star, but he dropped out after the surviving band members forced the film in a more PG-13 direction. Presumably, they had a lot of say in how the film ultimately depicted some of the more controversial elements of the band, because the result is a pretty toned down version of events in which they all come out looking great. Freddie Mercury’s boozing and drug use are mostly implied, and the band itself gets rather a lot of airtime, even a cathartic moment of forgiveness when they take their troubled lead singer back in with open arms and the family heals itself. Moreover, director Bryan Singer was fired for being an awful person to work with and the film was finished without his involvement. Now, it may be true that Singer is a sexual deviant and all the other things, but it’s a bit of a miracle that this movie ended up looking and sounding even have as good as it does, even given the rough road it had to travel.
I watched the thing with a big shit-eating grin on my face, and when those classic chords would boom through the theater it made my hair stand up on end. Does the film do justice to the outsized complexity of a life like Freddie Mercury’s? No. It doesn’t. But how could it? What it does do is function as a glorious technicolor celebration of his life and his music and the absolute ear-popping genius of his voice and his showmanship and the band. This movie was probably never going to satisfy everybody. But it sure is a hell of a lot of fun.