In the pipeline since 2010, and after a long, beleaguered production, the much-anticipated new Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic has been released – and the reviews are not exactly rave. Almost every critic saved all their praise for Rami Malek’s performance as the legendary frontman, and panned the rest of Bohemian Rhapsody as a pasteurised, homogenised pastiche. Ouch.
Malek certainly did his best, and the preparation he did for what may be the role that redefines his career ought to be admired. The rest of the cast seemed to give it their best shot, too. So, what was the problem? Why all the negative press? Apart from the obvious lack of relevant details about the life of the singer, there is only so much that anyone can do with a project that seemed doomed almost from the start.
A Very Long Production
According to reports, screenwriter Peter Morgan claimed the idea for Bohemian Rhapsody was Sacha Baron Cohen, who is arguably better known to most viewers as Ali G or Borat. The band didn’t seem to think it was a bad idea. Guitarist Brian May even insulted Cohen after he ditched the project in 2013.
A tabloid magazine reportedly had the details on why the actor left. It claimed he wanted the film to focus on Mercury’s life and treat it in a way that would earn it an age restriction, while the band members wanted it to focus on Queen before and after the singer’s death from AIDS.
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Morgan left the project after Cohen’s departure, and his departure was followed by that of director Dexter Fletcher in 2014. Anthony McCarten, who re-wrote the original script, replaced the screenwriter and Bryan Singer replaced the director. As for who would replace Cohen as Mercury, well, both Ben Whishaw and Daniel Radcliffe (can you imagine!? Harry Potter would never be the same for me again) were rumoured to have been approached, and then producer Graham King watched a video of Rami Malek impersonating the late singer, and that was that. Oh, did you really think it would be that simple?
According to reports, Malek gave his all to prepare for, and act in, the role. The director did not. Instead, it was claimed he would arrive on set late, if at all, and that he was mentally unstable. Singer either resigned or was removed from the project before filming had been completed. Who came to rescue it this time? None other than previous director Fletcher. Thankfully, it was relatively easy-going from then on.
From Malek to Mercury
Malek’s performance is Bohemian Rhapsody’s saving grace; something that has been recognised in almost every review. Given his preparation, he certainly earned it.
Entertainment Weekly told how the actor used his own money to travel to London, where he watched videos and read books about the singer, and even visited May and Roger Taylor, another surviving band member. It was also claimed that, prior to the film’s initial approval, Malek carried a set of fake Freddie Mercury teeth in a little box, and would occasionally wear them and practise singing. Not convinced he had done enough, he also went for movement and dialect lessons.
The actor looked, walked, and talked like Mercury, but could he sing like him? The legendary singer’s voice spanned four octaves, and was enriched by his uncommon ability to produce subharmonic vibrations using membranes in his throat, known as false vocal chords. To achieve a convincing singing voice that did not resort to lip-synching, the production team mixed Malek’s voice with Mercury’s and with that of contemporary Canadian Christian rock singer Marc Martel.
The real acid test here is the response of the surviving members of Queen. What did they think of the attempt to bring Freddie Mercury back to life on screen? According to May, they sometimes found it difficult to remember they were watching Malek, and not their late bandmate. That alone tells you that, even if you watch the movie for the main character only, it is time and money well spent.