Below, enjoy an exclusive review of the new Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody from Rock Cellar’s resident film critic, Ed Rampell.
Are You Ready for Freddie?
The new 20th Century Fox movie Bohemian Rhapsody, in theaters Nov. 2.,is to the genre of rock star biopics what Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme is to opera. Actor Rami Malek delivers a Freddie Mercury for the ages. His depiction of Queen’s front man is as complex as Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors or Paul Dano and John Cusack’s joint portrayal of Brian Wilson in 2014’s Love & Mercy. In terms of shattering sexual conventions, Bohemian is bolder than 2013’s Behind the Candelabra with Michael Douglas as Liberace. Unlike John Ridley’s 2013 Hendrix biopic Jimi: All is by My Side, the filmmakers had sweeping rights to use Queen’s glam-rock gems for its sensational soundtrack.
Farrokh Around the Clock: A Minority Within a Minority
Indeed, director Bryan Singer’s rocker-palooza opens with guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor giving the movie studio’s world famous theme song — “20th Century Fox Fanfare”, composed in 1933 by Alfred Newman — the British band’s distinctive treatment so that it sounds like a Queen anthem. The 2-hour, 14-minute rock epic, which spans the decade and a half from 1970 to 1985, is bookended by the quartet’s performance at London’s Wembley Stadium for the historic Live Aid benefit concert organized by Bob Geldof (Dermot Murphy). After we glimpse Malek as Freddie taking the stage at Wembly, Bohemian Rhapsody flashes back 15 years to when he was a 20-something blue collar worker unloading baggage at Heathrow Airport and at home, where he was known as Farrokh.
The scene at the Ealing apartment in Outer London clearly establishes him as the son of immigrants, the Bulsaras, a Parsi family of the Zoroastrian religion (whose ancestors fled from Persia to India in the 7th century). Farrokh was born Sept. 5, 1946 in Zanzibar, when that East African island was a British protectorate (Zanzibar today is part of the independent nation of Tanzania). Farrokh spent much of his childhood in India before moving with his father, mother and sister to Middlesex, England when he was a teenager.
All this is important info for the biopic because Farrokh is swiftly identified an archetypal outsider. Due to his immigrant and ethnic background Farrokh had to face racism – onscreen Brits repeatedly call him “Paki” (an ethnic slur) even though he’s not Pakistani. As a Zoroastrian, Farrokh was born into a tiny religious sect which today has less than 200,000 followers worldwide (the renowned classical crescendo by Richard Strauss played in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is “Thus Spake Zarathustra,“ named after Zoroastrians’ deity).
So Farrokh is a minority within a minority, trying to fit into and find his place in the broader, mostly white UK population. To complicate matters, he has an unusual appearance: born with four extra incisor teeth, Farrokh had a pronounced overbite but also, he thought, an additional vocal range of four octaves. Farrokh’s quest for an identity leads to father-son conflicts and his joining a band then-called Smile with Brian May (Gwilym Lee, Detective Sergeant Charlie Nelson in the ITV series Midsomer Murders) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, Angel in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, directed by Singer). Along with bass guitarist John “Deacy” Deacon (American actor Joseph Mazzello of Jurassic Park and HBO’s WWII series The Pacific), they launch Queen. At the same time, Farrokh romances the blonde British beauty Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, Countess Elena Andrenyi in Murder on the Orient Express).
The Mercurial Freddie
The biopic follows the band on their epic odyssey towards inevitable stardom. Along the way, Farrokh Bulsara morphs into Freddie Mercury, as he creates a brand new identity. In addition to legally changing his name to Freddie, utilizing live-in lover Mary’s impeccable fashion sense, Mercury evolves a singular stage style, persona and presence. An exemplar of the glam rock then in vogue, like David Bowie, Freddie frequently adorns himself onstage in flamboyant, effeminate, outrageous outfits. Bohemian’s costume designer Julian Day and makeup and hair designer Jan Sewell have a field day conjuring up Queen’s appearance during their heyday.
But more important than the band’s look is its sound, which is described as “experimental,” with Freddie audaciously declaring: “We’ll mix genres, cross musical boundaries.” While ascending the rock firmament the musicians sequester themselves in a remote farmhouse equipped with a sound studio to create an album expressing their unique vibe. Like many rock films such as the classic documentaries Monterey Pop and Woodstock, Bohemian is, in part, a concert film and Singer, his cast and crew make Queen’s performances pop off of the screen, enhanced by Newton Thomas Sigel’s sumptuous cinematography.
But more than that, in the capable hands of top writers Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) and Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), we see the inner workings of Queen’s creative process. In particular, viewers become eyewitnesses to Freddie’s composing of the title track and their challenge as musicians then play and record it. Once the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” is rendered on tape, they proudly take it to the recording company’s headquarters for one of the biopic’s most delicious scenes.
There EMI Records’ producer Ray Foster doesn’t “get” what the band is driving at and balks at “Bohemian Rhapsody”, because at six minutes it’s too long to play on the radio, among other reasons. Much to their credit, Freddie and the lads insist upon and follow their artistic instincts, walkout on Foster and break their contract. This is a witty inside joke — if you look closely, Foster is played by none other than an almost unrecognizable, bearded Mike Myers, who performed a hilarious “Bohemian Rhapsody” spoof in 1992’s Wayne’s World.
Quotations panning “Bohemian Rhapsody” once its released fill the screen and in the grand finale there is a funny shot of the glum Foster, the man who turned Queen’s title tune down, as the band has the last laugh with what became a mega-hit — among many others. With hit after hit — “We Will Rock You”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, “We Are the Champions”, etc. — Queen becomes the champions of rock ‘n’ roll. But as is often the case, success and stardom come with a price and Bohemian chronicles Freddy’s rise and fall.
Fame and fortune present endless opportunities for gender fluid Freddie, who becomes the partier-in-chief. More sure of himself, Freddie “sexplores” his homoerotic side, and in a frank discussion with Mary confesses he thinks he’s “bisexual.” Mary responds that he’s “gay.” According to press notes, “personal manager Paul Prenter … crept into Freddie’s affections and then betrayed him in the most heinous way,” providing Mercury with drugs, ruinously bad advice, isolating him from Queen, etc. (Prenter is portrayed by Irish actor Allen Leech, Tom Branson — the working class Irishman who, interestingly, married an English aristocrat in the popular ITV series Downton Abbey.)
The Comeback Kid
Mary wakes Freddie — who has been pursuing a solo career — up, and he tries to set everything right in his own spectacular fashion by reuniting with the band in time to perform at Live Aid, on the same bill as Paul McCartney, The Who, Bowie, Elton John, and across the Atlantic, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Santana, Madonna, Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, Mick Jagger, Crosby, Stills and Nash, etc. According to press notes “Live Aid was one of the most important cultural events of the 1980s, bringing together the world’s biggest superstars in a benefit concert on two stages, Wembley Stadium in London and the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, on July 13, 1985. Organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for those affected by the famine in Ethiopia, the concert was one of the largest satellite link-ups and TV broadcasts of all time, watched by an audience totaling 1.9 billion in 150 countries around the world.”
The screenplay and story by McCarten and Morgan is especially brilliant in that it builds up to Live Aid in a very dramatic manner. Not only does it mark Freddie’s return to Queen, but also the reunification of his family and Mercury’s finding true love in the form of Jim Hutton (Northern Ireland actor Aaron McCusker, Jamie Maguire in the Shameless Showtime series). In the movie, Live Aid is failing to raise money for famine relief and Geldof is anxious that the benefit concert is a flop — until Queen hits the stage. According to press notes, “When Freddie told people to phone in, people listened and started phoning in. Queen got the largest single donation, around £1 million, which in those days was huge!”
Not only does Freddie dazzle the massive crowd at Wembley, which interacts with him while he’s tickling the ivories and prancing onstage, but through his comeback this son of Zanzibar is able to help Mother Africa in its moment of relief. Through his unpaid performance, Mercury selflessly raises millions of dollars to fight hunger in the continent he hailed from — a sort of acknowledgement and acceptance of his roots. Queen may have epitomized rock’s libertine spirit, but songs such as Roger Taylor’s “Heaven for Everyone” are as idealistic as John Lennon’s anthem “Imagine.”
In this biopic by Bryan Singer, who has directed X-Men and Superman movies, Freddie Mercury is depicted as a sort of rock ’n’ roll superhero. Ironically, the concert that signaled his turn around is named Live Aid — and, in the movie, it’s around this time that Freddie discovers and confides to his band mates that he has AIDs. In the end Mercury was no invincible, invulnerable Man of Steel or caped crusader — but, rather, all too human.
Early on in the process of bringing Bohemian to the screen others were under consideration to portray Mercury, including Sacha Baron Cohen, who left the project due to creative differences. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Adam “Lambert has been playing with Queen since 2011 and has been touring with the band since 2014. ‘I don’t look like Freddie. I don’t sound like Freddie. I sound like me,’ said the singer.”
It turns out that Rami Malek — best known for playing the anti-corporate hacker Elliot Alderson in USA Network’s futuristic Mr. Robot series — is an uncanny choice for Freddie. Malek was born in L.A. in 1981 into an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox family — so like Zoroastrian Farrokh Bulsara, Malek, too, is part of a religious minority with African roots. Although Copts are Christians, being of Arabic origin in the post-9/11 USA, Malek presumably contended with prejudice, just as Farrokh/Freddie did in Britain.
According to press notes, Malek said he “found a very complicated man at the center, who was trying to discover his identity. That was something I knew how to tackle.” Malek told the BBC: “I kept searching for ways into the man and then I realized, he left us a diary and it’s in all of the songs.” But understanding Freddie’s Freudian side was only part of the picture — in addition to Mercury’s psychology Malek had to incarnate the physicality of one of rock’s greatest performers.
The press notes go on to say, “When it came to preparing for the live concert scenes, Malek took an unusual approach. ‘I knew I was going to have to sing, to do a British accent, to move all over the stage, and I knew I needed a movement coach,’ he says. ‘I met Polly Bennett, and we immediately hit it off.’” The BBC reported: “During development, he’d fly to London for singing and piano lessons, working with a dialect coach and choreographer Polly Bennett, who encouraged [Malek] to watch Mercury’s inspirations – Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and, especially, Liza Minelli in Cabaret.”
The American actor also had to look the part, and the task of making Malek resemble Mercury was up to makeup and hair designer Jan Sewell. The press notes state, “There were two key areas where Sewell had to use prosthetics: Freddie’s signature teeth and his aquiline nose. Sewell tested several pairs of teeth on Rami Malek to ensure they would look just right on camera. ‘What’s so fascinating about watching Rami play Freddie is how he has absolutely captured Freddie’s mannerisms,’ says Sewell. ‘Freddie was very aware of his teeth. He chose not to get them fixed even though he could have afforded it, and a lot of what he did was hiding them, which meant a lot of mouth movement. So it was very important to get the right size so that Rami felt he could act with them and be able to do those mannerisms.’ For the nose, Sewell created a gelatin nose that was applied every day. ‘What it did was broaden the top part of his nose which helps to pull his eyes together a little. Rami’s eyes are much bigger and, using makeup, I had to make his eyes less prominent,’ she says.”
The press notes quote Brian May as gushing, “Rami Malek is so convincing as Freddie, down to the body language.” May felt similarly about the other actors portraying the quartet: “When I first walked on the set and saw Gwilym Lee in his costume and wig, it was almost like looking in the mirror! … He did a very good job of being me! … And Joe Mazzello as Deacy is uncanny. John wasn’t a very outgoing personality, but he had a very distinct way of performing, and Joe got it down, just as Ben Hardy completely absorbed Roger Taylor‘s spirit in his performance.”
Most important was how Malek would sound during the concert and studio scenes. Lambert told Rolling Stone: “Rami looks amazing. He’s a great actor,” and added, “From what I understand, they used pieces of actual studio recording of Freddie and Marc Martel, who is an impersonator of Freddie Mercury, to do some of the other vocal stuff. So it’s really about re-creating Freddie.”
Regarding the music in the movie, Rolling Stone reported: “Don’t worry, you don’t have to hear Rami Malek sing. Instead, the soundtrack to the film … is mostly a compilation of original versions of the band’s greatest hits, from ‘Somebody to Love’ to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’” Malek is quoted in www.metro.us as saying, “It is an amalgamation of a few voices. But predominantly it is my hope and the hope of everyone that we will hear as much Freddie as possible. I think that is the goal for all of us.”
The press notes add, “One of the key roles on the film was the music supervisor. Becky Bentham was charged with the daunting task of creating the soundtrack for the film, using both Freddie Mercury’s real voice, a sound-alike and Rami Malek. After discussing with the director and the producer, Bentham categorized each song based on whether they are an on-camera performance or a background video. Having established how much existing material is available, from backing tracks to vocals, Bentham then ended up with a list of requirements for each pre-record sessions. She then laid down all the materials needed for each play back. The pre-records were sent to the cast to practice with vocal and instrument coaches.
Bentham stated, “‘It’s a credit to the actors and their dedication in putting in the hours with their coaches to achieve what we’ve got,’ she says. ‘Ben Hardy played a little bit of drums already, so he had a framework that we were able to build on. Gwilym Lee played some guitar, and Joe Mazzello played a bit of bass. Like Rami, they all spent long hours working with the pre-records. For Rami, we recorded and filmed our sound-alike so Rami had both a sound and visual reference to ensure he had the same physicality, from body movement to the breaths he takes.’”
Sticklers for Accuracy
Some fans and critics are nitpickers and sticklers for accuracy. Controversy emerged when the Bohemian Rhapsody’s trailer was released, leading some to express anxiety that the feature would “straight-wash” Freddie’s homosexuality and AIDs — but these subjects are indeed forthrightly addressed in the film per se. An article in the London-based Daily Telegraph groused that while Mercury’s lover Mary Austin is portrayed, “there is no sight of another woman he loved profoundly, a soft porn actress called Barbara Valentin. According to Mercury’s biographer Lesley-Ann Jones, Valentin had a significant influence on the singer’s life and work.” But given Freddie’s purported promiscuity, in a two hour and 14 minute movie, how many of Mercury’s lovers — male or female — could be portrayed, while leaving enough time for music? Still others may complain that David Bowie’s contribution to “Under Pressure” is overlooked in the film, and so on.
The press notes stress that Bohemian Rhapsody has a “from the horse’s mouth” authenticity: “May and Taylor were part of the team throughout the entire creative process, just as [producer Graham]King wanted it, and their involvement ensured the film remained true to history. ‘The film is telling their life stories, and no one knows it better than them,’ he says. ‘You can read as many books and magazine articles and watch as many videos and interviews, but when you can actually sit with the guys who can take you through the history, who can tell you anecdotes about Freddie that you’d never find out today, that meant the world to me. We all felt that we shouldn’t make the film unless everything was right — story, cast — everything else had to fall into place. The bottom line for me is for everyone involved to be proud of the storytelling, to be proud of a movie about their life stories that’s going to be shown around the world.’”
In the press notes Brian May described Freddie fondly: “I remember that wicked smile and sparkle in his eye. And he would say something totally inappropriate and wicked. But he was just funny and nice, and he didn’t have a bad bone in his body. He did have quite a quick temper, though, and he would react, but underneath that he was very shy, and if there was a confrontation, he would deal with it, and then he didn’t want to know. I remember the great warmth Freddie had and how he wouldn’t waste any time on anything. He was always focused, he always knew what he wanted to get out of a situation. And that’s a good lesson to learn rather than trying to please everybody else in a particular situation.”
Rami Malek captures these characteristics and more with his Oscar-caliber performance in what is arguably the greatest biopic about a rock icon ever made. His bravura performance is a wonderful testament to the living legacy of Freddie, as is the Mercury Phoenix Trust (www.mercuryphoenixtrust.com) that May, Taylor and their manager Jim Beach (played by Tom Hollander) established. This philanthropy claims to have “given away 15 million dollars in [Freddie’s] name and funded over 700 projects in the global battle against AIDS… in 57 countries.” The Mercury Phoenix Trust is in the movie’s end credits, and both the foundation and film are perfect ways to remember the unforgettable Freddie Mercury.
A longtime contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine, Ed Rampell was raised in QUEENS, NY, and co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.”