With five nominations at the 2019 Oscars, Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is one of recent cinema’s biggest successes. But with a tortured production history and a divisive portrayal of the group’s late singer, Freddie Mercury, the film has just as many detractors as fans. Recently, the group’s remaining members gave their thoughts on the awards contender. And they say there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.
Few acts in rock music have had quite as big an impact as Queen. As the regal name suggests, the group is considered rock ’n’ roll royalty. As a result, they’ve influenced everyone from Foo Fighters to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. And while hits like “We Are the Champions” still resound today, it’s their fascinating story that has got fans really talking at the moment.
Formed in London in 1968, Queen started life in a very different shape. Originally named Smile, the group consisted of Imperial College students Tim Staffell on bass and Brian May on guitar. Eventually, the addition of dental student Roger Taylor on drums helped flesh out their sound, but the band was still missing something.
It wasn’t until a shy art student named Freddie joined on vocals that things began to take off. Originally called Farrokh Bulsara and born to Indian parents, Mercury had already led an interesting life. Following a brief upbringing in Tanzania, he and his family would later move to Bombay before settling in England for good.
With the 1971 acquisition of replacement bassist John Deacon, the band was complete. From there, the newly-christened Queen began making its way through London’s thriving rock scene. At the time, the industry was dominated by macho groups like Led Zeppelin or contemplative groups like Pink Floyd. Yet Queen brought something different to the table.
In contrast to Mercury’s generation’s obsession with masculinity, he put forth a more theatrically flamboyant persona on stage. Despite his inherent shyness, the singer transformed into a confident showman who could whip audiences into a frenzy during gigs. Coupled with a strident three-octave vocal range, these features would make the frontman rock’s quintessential performer.
Nonetheless – as Taylor noted to movie site Flicks and the City in 2018 – there was more to Mercury than his stage presence. “I think a lot of people, they think about Freddie and think, ‘Oh, flamboyant,’ and whatever,” the drummer explained of his friend. “They tend to forget that he was a brilliant musician.”
Besides being a confirmed believer in rock ’n’ roll, Mercury also had a litany of high-minded interests that he loved to draw from. He once even joked to journalists that his mission in life was “to bring ballet to the masses.” Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1975’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that these ambitions coalesced into a single, brilliant whole.
Lasting nearly six minutes, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was epic in every sense of the word. Referencing everything from Beelzebub to Galileo and constantly shifting genre, the multi-part song was more rock opera than radio single. And its titanic scope would be reflected in its arduous production. Indeed, by the end of production, the song’s master tape had become transparent due to the sheer number of vocal dubs recorded on it.
Despite initial hesitation from the group’s record label, “Bohemian Rhapsody” became a bona fide hit. Upon its 1975 release, the song spent nine weeks at the top of the U.K. charts and would go on to sell a million copies in America. Moreover, its later usage in 1992’s Wayne’s World would help it gain fame among a new generation of fans.
Thanks in part to the success of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen became one of music’s leading acts. In the years that followed, the group kept churning out iconic songs like 1977’s “We Will Rock You.” And when the 1970s ended, hits like 1981’s “Under Pressure” – recorded with fellow pioneer David Bowie – helped the group stay at the top throughout the subsequent decade.
However, the group’s crowning moment wouldn’t come until 1985 with the televised charity concert Live Aid. With nearly 2 billion people tuning into the event, Queen played to their biggest audience yet and they made sure not to disappoint. Though they only performed for 17 minutes, their set-list is still regarded as one of rock’s greatest-ever shows.
On-stage, Mercury was an open book. But the singer kept his private life closed-off to the rest of the world. Not even his band-mates knew much about their friend beyond what he brought to the band. “We were very close as a group,” Taylor was quoted as saying following Mercury’s passing. “But even we didn’t know a lot of things about Freddie.”
Whereas musicians like Bowie were open about their sexuality, Mercury was decidedly less so. For three years, the singer was engaged to a woman named Mary Austin, who would later become his closest friend and confidante. But in 1976, the pair called things off when they came to a realization. And that revelation was that the frontman was, in fact, gay.
While Mercury came to terms with his own sexuality, he remained adamant about keeping his private life private. “Freddie had this habit of saying, ‘Well, I suppose you realize, this, that or the other,’ in this very offhand way,” May divulged to The Times in 2017. “And he did say at some point, ‘I suppose you realize I’ve changed in my private life?’”
In the mid-80s, the singer began to date Paul Prenter, his manager. But it seems that monogamy was the furthest thing from Mercury’s mind at this point. Living in Munich, Germany, the star partied, played the field and partook in the city’s drug scene. So enamored was the frontman with this lifestyle that he soon began dodging commitments to the band.
Eventually, though, Mercury’s hard-partying lifestyle would come to a tragic end. In 1987, the musician discovered that not only was he HIV-positive, but it had become full-blown AIDS. In typical fashion, he refused to discuss his condition openly – he only told his band-mates two years after his initial diagnosis. Instead, the frontman threw himself into his work and began recording obsessively.
On November 23, 1991, the star made his first public admission about his illness. Just one day later, Mercury passed away. Naturally, the music community grieved, but became united in its efforts to promote awareness about his condition. Five months after Mercury’s death, a benefit concert was held in his honor at Wembley Stadium – the site of Queen’s crowning Live Aid performance.
While they may have lost their lead singer, however, the surviving members of Queen were determined to keep going. Four years after Mercury’s death, the group released the album Made in Heaven which used unfinished recordings the singer left behind. Latterly, the band recruited Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert to keep their show alive.
Image: Gary Miller/Getty Images
Nevertheless, the public’s fascination with Mercury and his version of Queen has only continued to grow after his death. And like many great music icons, the late star caught the attention of Hollywood. In 2008, Peter Morgan, who penned The Queen, approached May and Taylor about creating a biopic. Thus began the long journey towards Bohemian Rhapsody.
Though excited to be involved, however, the group still had concerns about portraying Mercury without his approval. “We were a little reluctant in the beginning because it’s difficult to make a film that would do Freddie justice,” May told Flicks and the City. “We realized if we didn’t get involved then somebody else would do it. [And we] wouldn’t be able to protect Freddie’s legacy.”
From the earliest days of Bohemian Rhapsody’s pre-production, it seemed the project would be an easy sell. Indeed, by 2010 actor Sacha Baron Cohen had already signed up to play the flamboyant singer and the film was due to enter production the next year. However, it wasn’t long before cracks began to show.
Speaking to film site Cinemablend in 2011, Morgan revealed that his script delved deeply into Mercury’s more debauched side. Moreover, the writer feared that it would lead clashes to the rest of the band, who were serving as producers. “I think they’ll recognize the truth in it, but it’s a series of painful memories for them,” he explained.
Morgan wasn’t the only one having doubts about the project. In 2013, Cohen walked away from the film, sparking rumors of a troubled production. Three years later, the comedian confirmed that his departure was due to the band disagreeing with his unvarnished vision for playing Mercury. “They wanted to protect their legacy as a band,” the star revealed to DJ Howard Stern.
Nevertheless, the band pulled no punches when giving their own version of Cohen’s departure. “We decided he wasn’t right for the role for very good reasons, which will become apparent if you watch what he’s done recently,” May explained to the Mail on Sunday in 2016 regarding the bawdy comedian. “I don’t think he took it seriously enough,” added Taylor to the Associated Press in 2018.
Though Morgan initially believed Cohen’s exit spelled the biopic’s end, the show would indeed go on. In 2016, Bohemian Rhapsody secured both a star and director in the shape of Rami Malek and Bryan Singer respectively. Yet the latter of these hirings would become something of a curse for the already troubled production.
With publicity already ablaze for the work-in-progress, production suddenly ground to a halt in December 2017. According to a statement from parent studio Fox, Bohemian Rhapsody “temporarily halted production due to the unexpected unavailability” of Singer. Later, a representative explained the filmmaker’s absence to the BBC as “a personal health matter concerning Bryan and his family.”
Regardless of Singer’s absenteeism, however, the director’s attachment to the picture was becoming a cause célèbre in Hollywood. Following several claims of sexual indiscretion in the past, the filmmaker had faced fresh accusations of misconduct earlier in 2017. With or without the director’s disappearance from the set, Singer was becoming a real issue.
Just three days after going AWOL from the set, Singer was let go from the film. And while the director’s alleged abuse wasn’t the reason for his dismissal, his reputation clearly had an effect on production. “My situation with Bryan was not pleasant at all,” Malek said at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2019. “And that’s about [all] I can say about it at this point.”
After the hiring of replacement director Dexter Fletcher, Bohemian Rhapsody finally finished filming just two weeks after Singer’s departure. However, its herculean journey to completion was by no means over. After nearly a years-worth of post-production, the fabled Freddie Mercury biopic finally hit U.K. cinemas on October 24, 2018.
Upon its release, Bohemian Rhapsody received a host of good notices. In particular, Malek was singled out for his pitch-perfect rendition of the iconic singer. But other reviewers weren’t so generous with their praise. Indeed, some critics took offence to the biopic’s treatment of both Mercury and the band’s history.
Writing for the The Spectator, Jasper Rees criticized the film for a “callous rearrangement of the facts” with regard to its portrayal of Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis. Moreover, others accused it of downplaying the singer’s sexuality. “It strips Mercury of a part of his identity that was as vital to his success as his [vocal] range,” argued Vox’s Aja Romano in January 2019.
But for all the movie’s controversies, it was praised by those who knew and loved Mercury the most. Two days before Bohemian Rhapsody’s U.K. release, May and Taylor sat down with Flicks and the City to share their thoughts on the biopic. And they couldn’t have been any more thrilled with the way their story was translated to the big screen.
“I think Freddie would say – number one – it had to be entertaining,” May admitted. “And I believe people will [laugh and cry] in this movie.” Above all else, however, the guitarist was especially pleased with how Malek had captured Mercury’s essence. And contrary to popular belief, he opined that the actor accurately portrayed the singer’s complex personality.
“I love the way that Rami has captured not only Freddie’s great power and ebullience,” the musician said, “but also the vulnerability of Freddie, of which there was a lot.” Taylor, meanwhile, was similarly effusive. “I think the film does pay good attention to the fact that Freddie was a real, real great musician,” he added.
Moreover, Taylor praised the film’s attention to detail and how the cast’s authenticity even had them fooled. “After a couple of viewings,” the drummer exclaimed, “you just start to completely believe, ‘Oh, that was us.’” May similarly professed citing the uncanniness of his own on-screen portrayal by Gwilym Lee. “It even suspends our disbelief,” he said.
Though Bohemian Rhapsody took a decade to reach the screen, it certainly turned out to be worth the wait. With a worldwide gross of $833 million, the biopic became the seventh highest-earning picture of 2018. Furthermore – with an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win for Best Picture under its belt – the film is also the year’s strongest awards contender.
That being said, the musical epic remains a lightning rod for controversy. Due to Directors Guild of America rules, Singer received sole director’s credit. And this fact that has proven contentious in regards to the filmmaker’s alleged behavior. In light of fresh allegations of sexual impropriety made against him, BAFTA recently denied the director recognition in their nomination of the film.
In spite of the naysayers, though, the group has no doubt that Mercury would have approved of the final product. “I think he would have felt it was a fair cop, really,” May explained to Louder Sound in January. “It shows all his greatness and all his fallibility and insecurity – the whole bit.”
“I think it shows him very truthfully,” the guitarist continued, “but in a way that appreciates his talent.” Nearly 30 years after his death, Mercury remains a musical legend and Bohemian Rhapsody’s success is proof of his continued relevance today. Indeed, any challengers to the crown of rock ‘n’ roll have a long path to follow.