Tuesday, 30 October 2018


Queen frontman Freddie Mercury lives again a straightforward story of rock and roll redemption that will have you punching the air.

Bohemian Rhapsody
is a fairy tale film. There are three princes – guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor; a beautiful queen – Mr Freddie Mercury; a damsel in distress – Freddie’s lifelong muse, Mary Austin, and a black hearted villain – Iago-esque band fixer Paul Prenter. There’s even a wise wizard – financial-adviser-turned-manager, Jim “Miami” Beach.

Queen were a rock band like no one else. Between May’s inspiring electric power chords and Mercury’s high camp sensibility, they mined opera, jazz, disco, 1950s rock and roll, funk, Do-Wop and hard rock, among other genres, to produce a fizzing, gender-bending musical cocktail that was truly a one off. In some ways they were similar to David Bowie, that other popular music colossus of the 1970s. Queen attempted what would be now be called alternative rock only once, on 1980’s ‘Under Pressure’, fittingly enough with Bowie himself.

If I have a criticism of the film, it’s that there’s no sense of a changing musical landscape to measure Queen against. The closest the film gets is when Freddie says he’s “fed up with the anthems” and John Deacon starts playing the funky strut of ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. “That’s not us! It’s disco!” objects Taylor. “It’s Queen,” Deacon replies. He’s right.

There’s also some liberty taken with the band’s timeline. They perform ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ on their 1975 American tour – it wasn’t committed to vinyl until 1978 – and are shown recording ‘We Will Rock You’ in 1980, when it was actually released four years before. Freddie’s moving admission to his band mates that he had AIDS happened the year after Live Aid, but in the context of the film it makes dramatic sense, as they hit the stage united behind a lead singer they know has limited time left.

This revision of the Queen chronology fits because, as the film shows, Freddie Mercury was very much the invented alter-ego of Farrokh Bulsara, son of a Zanzibar refugee, who earned his first wage packet as a baggage handler at Heathrow. In the well-worn showbiz theme of the path of excess not necessarily leading to the palace of wisdom, Mercury initially marginalises his blood family, drifts away from his soul-mate Mary because of his sexuality and becomes a stranger to himself, before subsequently finding redemption.

Throughout, May (Gwilym Lee) and Deacon (Jospeh Mazzello) are presented as what they were when Freddie first met them, amiable academics who had more than a knack for rock and roll. Mercury (Rami Malek) has a more fractious relationship with Taylor (Ben Hardy) – who studied to be a dentist, unlikely as that may seem – but acknowledges that he was essential to Queen’s collective chemistry, as he would always “push back” against Freddie’s more indulgent notions.

There’s a clever directorial touch that bookends the film. At the beginning, Mercury is shown preparing for the 1985 Live Aid charity concert and entering the backstage area at Wembley Stadium on his own. At the end, when he’s reconciled with himself, his friends and both families – the other members of Queen and his relatives – we see the whole band arrive at Wembley and take the stage.

And what a stage that was. It says something that I’m now old enough that events I experienced are having movies made about them. But still… if Bohemian Rhapsody was going to finish with anything it was going to be Queen’s set at Live Aid that made the day and stole the show. Neatly, we only see excerpts from the band’s live performances up until this point, and the highlights of the Live Aid songs are presented in full. By this point, Rami Malek is Freddie Mercury to the absolute life and you can’t help willing them on to seize the day. As they power through ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Radio Ga Ga’, ‘Hammer to Fall’ and ‘We are the Champions’, charity donations hit the magic number of £1,000,000 and people were applauding in the cinema.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a fairy tale. I think Freddie would have been both highly amused and very moved by that.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018


Inclusive, dark, moving, funny... Doctor Who is back. Oh, and
he's now a lady.

Fourth Doctor actor Tom Baker once said that the role of the Doctor was “actor proof”. That’s debatable, but what Jodie Whitakker conclusively proved in
The Woman Who Fell to Earth, her debut story and the debut story for the first female Doctor, was that the ‘issue’ of being a woman is completely irrelevant – the part is gender proof.

Witty, open and exuberant, the new Doctor was immediately endearing, a refreshing change from Peter Capaldi’s equally compelling angst and gravitas. She’s someone you took to immediately and wanted to spend time with. This feeling slotted neatly into head writer/showrunner Chris Chibnall’s decision to (re)introduce the Doctor – and by extension Doctor Who itself – through the eyes of five people drawn into her charismatic orbit: ex-bus driver Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), his wife Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), her grandson Ryan (Tosin Cole) and his old school friend Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), an ingenue police officer.

I’m not a 100% sure, but this may be the first story for a long time when there’s been no mention of the Doctor being a Time Lord. In fact, there’s hardly any back story AT ALL: when she mentions the TARDIS and regeneration, the Doctor gives cursory explanations. In Jon Pertwee’s debut Spearhead from Space (1970), a story with a comparable ‘year zero’ approach to launching a new Doctor with, again, no mention of his Time Lord origins, the TARDIS was still referred to as a time and space machine. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth this is kept deliberately vague – a tantalising “ship” is all we got.

Thematically, most of the main characters have lives that need fixing, which may explain why they’re literally in the dark for most of the story, resisting with an alien incursion over one (very long) Sheffield night. The Doctor doesn’t know who she is, Ryan has dyspraxia and is estranged from his father, Graham battles to be accepted as Ryan’s step-grandad and Yaz is frustrated by the lack of challenging police call outs. Elsewhere, alien target Karl (Jonny Dixon) is trying to build his self esteem with self improvement tutorials, while the alien menace himself also has confidence issues. Significantly Grace, the only character happy in her own skin and who admits to enjoying danger, is the one supporting character who dies. (This looks like a set up for the similarly natured Doctor to take her place in Graham’s life, a point specifically made when he says to her, “that’s just what Grace would say.”)

Self empowerment has been a theme in the life journeys of Doctor Who companionssorry, friendsever since the series came back in 2005, but it was presented here without the sometimes sledgehammer-subtle treatment of the message that occurred under previous showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. Attending the funeral of an important person in your life is a poignant time to reflect on what you have and haven’t done with your own, so Graham’s moving eulogy at Grace’s, and Ryan’s YouTube tribute to his gran, made perfect sense here. The implication for all of them to sort themselves out was there without the need for any histrionic ‘seize the day’-style speeches.

The incidental music score was subtle
too, as well as minimalist and moody. New composer Segun Akinola seems to have taken inspiration from the soundscapes of the 1960s’ era of the show – noticeably so in his arrangement of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme – as the score was a mesmerising cocktail of music and sound effect, at the same time referencing modern electronica. This approach was extremely effective in creating a nocturnal atmosphere of threat and unease, a vibe that director Jamie Childs was completely in tune with.

There were some lapses in the determined attempt at ‘realism’. How many construction workers would really take the word of two people they’d never seen before, with no ID or authorisation, and willingly abandon their work site, especially if they were on lucrative night-time wages? Likewise, the average wait for a funeral is three weeks – more, if the death is unusual, as Grace’s was – so would the Doctor really not change out of her predecessor’s clothes in all that time? No wonder she was standing at the back of the church (presumably with the door open and down-wind of the congregation).

The science fiction element was a mixed bag. The DNA bombs were unquestionably a great – and very nasty – idea, while the “gathering coils” were suitably bizarre, writhing like a nest of serpents to imply their quasi-organic nature. Extra terrestrials using the Earth as a hunting ground is, though, a direct crib from the Predator films, while the look of “Tim Shaw” – a killer who decorates himself with the teeth of his victims as trophies – is a visual steal from the SyFy Channel’s horror anthology, Channel Zero: Candle Cove (2016), which featured a similar molar obsessed entity (above). Having said that, the idea of a would-be warlord who’s a “double cheat” is an appealing concept, and Samuel Oatley’s self important performance was good enough to make me wish for a return match, possibly indicated by the alien warrior teleporting before he was killed.

After all the pointless, nearly year-long invective on the internet based on some people dismissing a new approach to Doctor Who before they’d even seen it, over nine million people tuning in is a terrific thumbs up. The viewing figures will probably level off, but it’s a very promising start. And finally, that Carpool Karaoke clip of the main cast miming to Heart’s 1987 power ballad Alone is bloody hilarious. If they’re having that much fun, it’s a good indication that we will.