When I went to an 11am session of Bohemian Rhapsody this week in Melbourne, my expectations were low.
I’d been looking forward to a movie about one of my all-time heroes, Freddie Mercury, but after reading the negative reviews, I worried it’d be a huge let down.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” wrote Pitchfork, “is not so much a film as it is a dramatization of a Wikipedia entry, watered down and over-edited.”
Yet the film-going public had another view. Google users were rating the film at 98 per cent while Rotten Tomatoes users gave it 94 per cent approval.
Meanwhile, critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it just 60 per cent, while top reviewers offered a paltry 45 per cent. How could the critics be so out of step with audiences?
To my surprise, I found myself engrossed from the first frame.
I was astounded by Rami Malek, who seems to fully inhabit the enigmatic and flamboyant Freddie Mercury. I was amused by the sibling-like dynamic of the band and moved to tears by the finale — a dazzling re-enactment of the Live AID concert.
Along the way, I discovered Mercury’s family origins as ethnic Parsi, descendants of the Zoroastrians who fled Persia for India in the 8th century.
I also learnt about his former female partner (played by Lucy Boynton) and how he eventually came out to her about his emerging sexuality.
Yes, there were more details I would have liked about Mercury’s journey to becoming a gay man — but how much can you pack into a movie that already runs over two hours and provides a toe-tapping repertoire of Queen’s greatest hits?
Besides, the film doesn’t set out to be a comprehensive overview of Mercury’s life — it is more about his career as lead singer for Queen. Mercury left behind such a legacy of music and showmanship that it’s a near impossible task to do justice to such a larger-than-life figure.
Some critics have complained that Mercury’s sexuality and later AIDS diagnosis is brushed over — but in fact the film is unambiguous about his sexuality and one of the most tender scenes shows him telling his bandmates about his life-threatening diagnosis before it becomes tabloid fodder.
Clearly, audiences have taken to the film with gusto, despite the overwhelmingly negative reception from critics.
The film was released on 510 Australian screens last week and averaged $13,255 per screen, making it a huge success. Globally, it has already earned $US141 million at the box office, when it cost $US72 million to make.
Other recent movies have been panned by critics only to become box office hits, including the 2016 film Warcraft, which averaged just 4.2/10 among reviewers but earned close to $US450 million.
Spiderman spin-off, Venom, showed a similar disparity.
The response the movie is generating mirrors the critical reception Queen experienced. They have always been a “fans’ band”, thriving in the face of media derision.
As the movie shows, Queen’s early record, Night at the Opera was canned in the UK on release. The single Bohemian Rhapsody was derided as pretentious rubbish by the British music press.
Yet the song went on to be one of the most popular of all time and twice reached number one in the UK pop charts.
At one point in the film, when asked what sets Queen apart from other bands, Mercury says he is playing “for the outcasts in the back”.
The film shows that as a gay, ethnically-diverse performer (early in the film, he’s teased as a “Paki”) rock music provided a refuge where he could be himself and be accepted.
At its core, the film is musical entertainment on an epic scale.
Most negative reviews also acknowledge the remarkable leading performance from Rami Malek, who not only captures Mercury’s spirit but imaginatively enhances it.
As the box office figures show — despite the sniping — these elements are enough for most cinema-goers.