Bohemian Rhapsody soars on the strength of a performance by Rami Malek, who got under the skin of iconic Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in a way that has made him the prohibitive favorite in the Oscar Best Actor race. The film chronicles the formation, rise, and adversity weathered by the band before its titanic 1985 Live Aid turn that is still considered one of the greatest concert performances ever turned in by a super group. The picture has been a passion project for guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, who were the creative consultants on the film and who rose to fame with the late Mercury and bass player John Deacon.
Considering that its director Bryan Singer was fired two weeks before production was completed, the film has surprisingly soared like no rock biopic before it, on the strength of the performances and a rocking soundtrack featuring Queen’s signature tunes. Bohemian Rhapsody grossed $845 million worldwide, and landed five Oscar nominations including Best Picture (Graham King and Jim Beach produced it) and the Best Actor nod for Malek. When we look back on actors handling the perilous platform of awards campaigning, Malek’s playbook will be one to follow. Effortlessly charming and self deprecating, he is irresistible as he talks about morphing into a rock god. What was it like for May and Taylor to see him become their friend and bandmate? The surviving Queen members answer here.
DEADLINE: When this movie was being assembled, so much was dependent on the depiction of Freddie Mercury. Describe that first meeting with Rami Malek, and what he showed you that made you believe he could pull this off?
BRIAN MAY: My stereo picture from the QUEEN in 3-D book shows us in that very first meeting [photo at right]. It actually says it all! After a few minutes with him in Roger’s flat, everything about Rami had clicked with us. His reading of Freddie’s personality was spot on. His instinctive “inhabiting” of Freddie’s physical presence was already uncanny. We watched his demo screen tests — which were great — but really it was the feeling in the room that here was the perfect man to don Freddie like an overcoat! Of course, Rami had already mastered Freddie’s unique accent and tone of voice. But his characterization went much further than that.
ROGER TAYLOR: We were utterly charmed by this interestingly-dressed, charismatic pocket-battleship of a man!
DEADLINE: Describe the specific qualities…
TAYLOR: Intelligence and intensity, plus he really looked right for the part.
MAY: Above his obvious skills, he was someone who, as a human being, made us feel like we wanted to welcome him as family. And that’s the way it worked out.
DEADLINE: How were you able to help him get the handle on his role, especially the onstage scenes?
MAY: We spent quite a bit of time together in those weeks prior to shooting. I guess we opened up to him easily, Roger and I. So I think a certain familiarity grew up. There was no feeling that we had to “pump him up” — I think he just absorbed the whole atmosphere of how it would have been to be Freddie, amongst us. The same applied to Gwil [Gwilym Lee played May and re-created the virtuoso guitar work that was as much a signature of the band as Mercury’s voice].
I spent some good fun times with Gwil, examining the way I played certain guitar pieces, and talking about how some of those moments felt, and in particular the kind of dynamic that I felt with Freddie and the rest of the band. He absorbed it all incredibly well — but I became aware later that he had also absorbed my whole “persona” — my body language, my way of reacting to moments. Gwil, in my opinion, gives a wonderful performance which will grow in appreciation.
DEADLINE: What mannerisms of Freddie Mercury were you most concerned with seeing onscreen?
TAYLOR: We left that to him and his astute comprehension, gained from Freddie’s interviews.
MAY: We weren’t concerned. Rami “got it” from the start.
DEADLINE: There must have been a moment where you watched those actors performing and got nostalgic for those glory days. How close was it to how you remembered it?
MAY: It’s all great. Some of what you see on the screen was improvised … and it’s more real than anything that could have been imposed upon them. Those guys “became” us. I saw it first on the first day of filming … Live Aid. The atmosphere was electric. There’s an iPhone capture of me in the wings on that day on my Instagram feed. You can see how completely authentic that moment was — on a set which miraculously reproduced every inch of the original Live Aid stage.
TAYLOR: The Live Aid sequence was first – his stage moves were spot on. Offstage — mostly uncannily real!
DEADLINE: Were you there often during shooting the Live Aid concert performance scenes?
MAY: Yes, when we weren’t away on tour!
TAYLOR: Two days — once with Bob Geldof — didn’t want to interfere.
DEADLINE: Please describe what you felt and said to each other, after watching the movie, the dailies, and replaying those seminal coming-of-age days for a great band?
MAY: Too much to tell really. Roger and I both got concerned at certain things … and we became involved in many discussions after seeing rough cuts. But when we finally saw the rough assembly of the whole film, and sat with our partners for the first time, we ALL got uncontrollably emotional — way beyond what we’d expected, even though we’d seen the whole thing growing in front of our eyes.
TAYLOR: So much was scarily close to real — strange feelings!
DEADLINE: And the memories of your dear departed friend as you watched Rami Malek?
TAYLOR: I think he got on top of Freddie’s speaking voice — a difficult trick — I loved above all things the fact that the film moved people and ultimately exhilarated them — all we could ask for or want.
MAY: We felt only joy. So often, we could sense Freddie sitting in the wings, smiling wickedly … and saying “You buggers got THAT bit right .. ha ha !!”
Just to add…. I’ve been astounded by the outpourings of positive emotion from audience members all around the world. People are deeply moved, to laugh, and cry, and they get inspired — feel that they have seen a new truth … and to keep coming back and back to experience the journey again and again.
Also I’ve been bemused by the intense bitterness it’s evoked from a few people, who seem to want to shout about how bad they think the film is. I don’t yet fully understand what the motivation is. All I can think, overall, is that there is a similar jealous righteousness about a lot of the criticism that is very reminiscent of the way our music was reviewed over the years. You even see that in the movie. Maybe there is just something about what we put into our work that unites most of the world, but makes a small peripheral group of people feel resentful. My feeling is … that on the whole, between Graham, and Fox, and the whole team — including DoP, Editor, Sound, crews, extras, and us — we made the right film. It makes me happy to see the fine work done by our team recognized, as it has been.