Twenty-seven years ago today, on November 24, 1991, the world lost an enigmatic, bombastic, shy, beloved, lonely and multi-talented man whose musical ability still awes old fans while drawing in new.
Freddie Mercury wasn’t just the lead singer of one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Freddie Mercury was – is – a legend, which is precisely what he said he would be. That explains why his music is still enjoyed by people around the world…and why a film about his life, by the people we believe knew him best, would be a box office draw.
I admit I was hesitant about whether to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the “Freddie Mercury Biopic”. As a life-long QUEEN fan, I, like other QUEEN fans, have read a bit over the years about the group and about Freddie. I was certain there would be some liberties taken with Freddie’s storyline and I wasn’t sure I wanted to see them. I was also certain the empty feeling of loss would return once the film ended and “Freddie” was again gone. Both were true.
But first things first.
Rami Malek as Freddie
Rumor had it that Johnny Depp had once been considered to play the part of Freddie. As a long-time Depp fan, I was definitely on board with that. However, those plans fell through (or never were) and Sacha Barron Cohen was contracted for the role. Those plans fell through as well, due to creative differences. Thus, Rami Malek was given the role. Now that I’ve seen the film, I have to say I cannot imagine another actor embodying Freddie as well as Rami did – aside from Freddie himself. His energy, his gestures, his subtle insecurities and even his flares of anger, were so reminiscent of Freddie they would likely make the man himself laugh in appreciation and recognition. Except for the eyes…which were hazel(?) instead of a dreamy dark brown.
I haven’t seen a lot of movies this year, but I would even suggest Rami’s portrayal of Freddie was Oscar-worthy.
Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee and Joseph Mazzello were Roger, Brian and John, respectively. For much of the time, I felt like I was watching the actual band members. I felt Gwilym Lee, as Brian, was particularly spot on in both appearance and, with some minor exceptions, personality.
Joseph Mazzello, whom I last saw on screen limping around after being fried by an electric fence in Jurassic Park, made me laugh aloud with his perfect impressions of John’s facial expressions. In one scene, he is lounging, legs crossed, on a couch. He’s somewhat blurred in the background of the shot, but just from the way he’s sitting there, it was as if John himself was in the scene.
Although Ben Hardy’s performance was enjoyable as well, his likeness to Roger was less pronounced, particularly in the moments he shared with Freddie (in other words, most of them), which leads to my next point.
“We’re a family”
We were told repeatedly throughout the film, how these four men were ‘like family’. We saw them create, quibble, and go on to make beautiful music together. But we never actually saw the family-side of their relationship. The connection history tells us these men had was nowhere to be found. If anything, the relationship between Freddie and Roger appeared frosty, grating and antagonistic, and yet those two men were good, close friends.
John and Freddie were close as well, with a genuine bond that is barely, if at all, present in the film. John even played bass on one of Freddie’s solo albums, Barcelona, which was a collaboration between Freddie and opera soprano, Montserrat Caballe.
Instead, the relationship between these four amazingly talented men is shown as stilted and fair-weathered – even as we, the audience, are *told* by multiple characters that they were a family.
Overnight Successes rarely Happen
QUEEN was not an overnight success. They were not performing in a club one night and ‘discovered’ the next. They were not all in agreement, all the time, with the style or direction of their music. Artistic differences among all four members, not only Freddie, caused friction between them as in any relationship with strong personalities. While the film portrayed them butting heads personally, it rarely portrayed moments of conflict during the recording process. In fact, with the exception of one particularly famous outburst from Roger (an amusing nod to the audience), the creative process came across as deceptively smooth.
Another One Bites the Dust, for example, wasn’t written and recorded in one session as implied in the film. While that might be a minor overlooked Hollywood detail, it’s not minor to the history of QUEEN.
Freddie had even said t took months for them to record an album.
All four men butted creative heads consistently. All four men toiled over their music, dealt with ‘adjustments’ from the others regularly, and all four, together, were better for it. To present Freddie as the sole, constant, hysterical queen – with the single exception from Roger – was inaccurate because Freddie was a hysterical queen only slightly more than the others.
It seemed to me that, throughout the film, Freddie was not only a hysterical queen, but constantly so. From real-life interviews, we know Freddie was definitely cheeky. He could also be charming, coy, abrupt and vulgar – all the things any one of us could be. He was a private person, wanting to present his art – his music, his bombast – to the world, then retire to a true home life with loving family and friends. Did he party? Did he drink and get high? Yes. He never denied any of that – and yes, for a while, he was a regular on the 80’s club scene.
But the film makes it seem as though the others were somehow untainted by that scene, as though they thought Freddie, singularly among them, needed to ‘grow up’.
The film also makes it seem that, since they didn’t have time for such childish behavior, Roger, John, and Brian frequently abandoned Freddie, passing on his invitations to spend time together, even for something as laid-back as a shared meal.
Although his loneliness was genuine in real life, Freddie did have true friends – a house-full of them who he counted on, loved, and trusted. He had his bandmates, his family, his cats, and, of course, he had Mary.
While some have suggested the film white-washed Freddie’s sexuality, I disagree. During most of the film, I felt his sexuality was either on obvious display or appropriately subtle, including the scene where he meets Mary after exchanging a wink and a nod with another man in a public hallway. But there were also moments when his sexuality was on display as something much deeper, more emotional. I felt the complexity of it. the confusion. I felt his passion and drive, his need for affection and his desire to maintain his privacy about it. Even scenes with Mary directly addressed his sexuality, including a scene adapted from the true-to-life moment when he told her he thought he was bisexual and she said she thought he was gay.
He loved Mary until the end, and she loved him. Freddie even once referred to Mary as his “common-law wife”, and the portrayal of their connection – the pain and completeness of it – was palpable to me. In fact, I wanted more of that – more of their love affair, their oddly close yet distant relationship. The angst and pleasure of it. The ‘it’ that bound them together. The part of Freddie who Mary saw and loved. I wanted more of that because I believe it was that intimate part of Freddie that made him so appealing to men and women alike. On stage and off.
Mr. Bad Guy
Real life is not always as compelling as fiction, so artistic liberty is expected in a biopic such as Bohemian Rhapsody. However, I think it’s fair to say some liberties should be avoided – such as turning the lead character into a villain, especially when he’s not here to defend himself or otherwise set the story straight.
In Bohemian Rhapsody, the biggest (and most upsetting to me) scramble of history was Freddie’s apparent betrayal of the group, where he supposedly abandoned them for a $4 million solo contract. After months of isolation and no contact with Jim Beach, any of the band members, or even Mary, the film shows Freddie begging to be ‘allowed’ to rejoin the band. Freddie, for once in the film, is shown to be on time for a meeting where he’ll make this request, only to be kept waiting by his suddenly passive-aggressive bandmates who deliberately stroll in some time later. Freddie is shown to be contrite and near pleading, and is then sent from the room by Brian, like a scolded child whose punishment was to be decided.
Meanwhile, in real life, the first among the band members to record a solo album was not Freddie but Roger, who did so in 1981 and then again in 1984. Freddie’s first solo album, “Mr. Bad Guy”, was released in 1985.
The same year as Live Aid.
Jim Hutton and Live Aid
Jim Hutton and Freddie were in a relationship well before Live Aid – which was well before Freddie was diagnosed with AIDS. Freddie did not suddenly look up a love interest after being diagnosed. Rather, it was after they had been together for a while that Freddie told Jim he had “full-blown AIDS”. According to Jim himself, in his book MERCURY AND ME, Freddie told Jim he would understand if Jim left him, to which Jim replied that he loved Freddie and wasn’t going anywhere.
It’s a fact that Freddie’s voice was indeed weakened by AIDS…it is also a fact that Freddie downed vodka to lessen the pain of singing during studio sessions…but that was not during Live Aid, as portrayed in the film. It was several years later.
As stated before, Freddie was not yet diagnosed with AIDS at that point and, as history shows, Freddie, along with QUEEN, were in top form for their LIVE AID performance.
If we look at this film as a Hollywood production, we will love it. In classic style, it shows the ugly duckling becoming the swan. It shows passion, love, conflict and heartache. It shows pain, hope and pride. It shows success, determination. And personal failure.
Obviously, it shows a condensed and modified version of QUEEN and of Freddie Mercury, and I do believe Freddie, the man who once referred to his music as “disposable pop”, would be appalled by the very idea of it.
Having said that, Bohemian Rhapsody also teased a side of Freddie that we, as an admiring or scoffing public only glimpsed: a confident though shy man whose charisma, talent and sexual prowess oozed from him as he stood upon the stage of life soaking in much deserved adulation. A man who had it all yet found himself, at times, home alone and lonely.
A “musical prostitute”. An inspiration. A flamboyant, energetic, crowd-rousing frontman. An unmatched vocal talent. A man whose star still shines bright and whose music, mastery, and mystique live on.
“I’m not going to be one of those old hams that keeps going on and on. I’d rather leave it at the top.” – Freddie Mercury
This movie made me cry but I really loved it. I saw some of the things you mentioned and they made me shake my head. I think Brian May had more input in this than anyone else and that’s why he looked so laid back and saintly. They even made Freddie say Brian was the smart one and the scene where Brian tells Freddie to leave the room is probably what Brian always wished he could do to take Freddie down a peg. Delete the Brian wet dream parts and its decent and fun but you’re right it’s not accurate. They would need twice the film length to do justice to Freddie and to their own time line. I still think I would see it again. Queen has that effect on me.
I think everyone who saw it cried at exactly the same point and for about the same amount of time. I was thrilled to hear the audience I was part of singing along with the ending credits. It felt like a sweet, personal goodbye and thank you to Freddie.
I hear you about Brian May. I think he’s always felt that he should have equal or greater billing than Freddie but truth is, Freddie, by nature, was the star then and still is now.
I’m glad you enjoyed it enough to go back to see it again. Queen has that effect on me as well, and I will likely buy it when its out on DVD. Until then, it’s the real interviews, music videos and LPs for me. 😎
Back in the day, I enjoyed Queen’s music but didn’t buy it, partly because they were most active in my college days when I was the most broke.
Still, while watching the movie, I remember thinking occasionally, “Uh, I don’t think that song was recorded then.”
Nevertheless, Rami made an excellent Freddie. I, too, wish we could’ve seen more about how Mary was so loyal to Freddie, how their relationship was complicated, but she was always there and loyal.
Thanks for writing such an excellent post. This was one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
Exactly! Brian introducing We Will Rock You to a mustached Freddie? I eye-rolled so hard on that I saw the people behind me eye roll as well.
Seriously…I get a certain amount of timeline issues in a movie like this but I found it offputting here. It made me wonder what they were trying to show us. Was this a film about QUEEN? Because if it was, it wasn’t very accurate – and it left out a huge amount of their individual personalities like their humor, their quirks and their concerns. Or was this a film about Freddie? Because if it was, it seemed as if they chose actual details and a few sides of BS then served them up scrambled.
I know Mary and John were not involved in the making of this film, and I respect that because I think they knew Freddie wouldn’t be on board either. Having said that, I wish they had signed on, since it was going through anyway, so they could have offered some balance.
In the end, I think it was compelling and I know it has already renewed the interest of old fans while introducing new ones. I’ll never complain about that.
Thanks for coming by Rhonda!
I didn’t know some things you talked about here but I liked the movie. The music was great. It brought back memories and made a fan of my 3 kids. Even they knew Freddie Mercury was somebody important so maybe the movie made the rest of the band feel important too.
That’s an interesting thought, Marion, and it’s quite possible. I do think Roger is perfectly comfortable and confident about his role in the band, then and now (and each played a huge part in it, so I’m not trying to diminish any of them or their contribution to that phenomenal band). John actually had nothing to do with this film, in fact, he’s had almost nothing to do with QUEEN since Freddie’s passing. Brian, IMO, does seem to battle, ego-wise, with Freddie’s staying power, so your suggestion, in that regard, certainly makes sense.
The best thing about this movie is exactly what you said – the music and how it’s creating a new generation of fans. That…is a win.
Thanks for stopping by!
I can’t decide if I want to see this movie. I’m not even comfortable with Brian and Roger using the name ‘queen’ now. Queen is Freddie. FFS John isn’t even part of it anymore. Other queen fans I know feel the same and this review and others prove the movie wasn’t made to honor Freddie but to make Bri and Roger look good. That’s sad. Maybe Mary will finally write a book about the real Freddie and the real Brian and Roger. I would go see that.
Thanks for stopping by Joxer!
I don’t think Brian and Roger produced this film simply to make themselves look good as much as I think this is actually how they see their time with Freddie. For all his success, I always felt Brian resented Freddie’s fame – his charisma, monumental talent, stage presence and staying power. He’s even re-written the history of Bo-Rap by saying in early interviews that Freddie had every note for it in his head – even the guitar solo, then saying in later interviews that HE (Brian) wrote the solo. He also compared the complexity and wonder of Bo-Rap with his Prophet’s Song, as if the two are on par – which, sorry Bri, they’re not even close. So…yes, I hear you and understand your resentment but if you see this film knowing it’s more of a Hollywood production than a documentary (which it isn’t supposed to be), then it’s likely you will enjoy it. Rami Malek’s performance alone is worth the ticket price.
Re. Mary writing a book – that will never happen. She has spoken about him on occasion but she was fiercely loyal to him and, despite the power of his presence on stage, he was a very private person. I doubt she’d ever betray him – a man she loved – by writing a book about his life.
John on the other hand…