While flying into Singapore on November 6, the in-flight announcement made it clear that passengers should be prepared for turbulent weather. And, so it was, a little high, a little low.
Indeed, it was an appropriate description of what was to come: an opportunity to see an IMAX screening of the film Bohemian Rhapsody. The film was the culmination of an eight year struggle by Queen’s band members, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, to bring the band’s story and, more importantly, that of deceased singer Freddie Mercury, alive.
Was it worth it? Without a doubt, yes, as Anthony McCarten’s story captures the pre-Queen beginnings of May and Taylor, as members of Smile, eventually having Farrokh Bulsara [Mercury’s previous avatar] join them, culminating in the formation of Queen with John Deacon on bass, going right to the epoch and memorable performance of the band at Live Aid in 1985.
In between, the movie depicts the building up of the band’s success across the globe, the recording of the storied title song and the reluctance of the band’s label, EMI (full disclosure: my one-time employer), of releasing it as a single, Mercury’s interactions with both sexes, his excesses, the impact of Mercury’s solo career on the band and a reunion of sorts following the disclosure of his AIDS diagnosis.
A hit at the box office
Negative reviews prior to the movie’s release firmly established, for me, that they were written by the critics for themselves. Keep in mind that Bohemian Rhapsody debuted at the US box’s office top spot, grossing $52 million, effectively recovering the cost of production during the first weekend. Since then, it gross more than $309 million globally, as on November 13, making it the highest-grossing musical biopic of all-time. In India, the movie is releasing today, November 16.
The making of the film was not without its own ups and downs. Principal photography commenced in London in September 2017, which included building an exact replica of the Live Aid set at Wembley Stadium. It was recreated by the same production team that had created the original set and brought to Bovingdon Airfield near Hemel Hempstead in England.
Actor Sacha Baron Cohen was originally signed on for the role, but stepped down. In December last, director Bryan Singer was fired as director, with about two weeks remaining of the shoot. Nevertheless, Singer still receives directorial credit due to a Directors Guild of America ruling that only a sole director can receive it. Singer’s replacement Dexter Fletcher has been given an executive producer credit.
The outstanding soundtrack supports the intensity of the film, and features several Queen songs and unreleased recordings, including several tracks from the group’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 (which was broadcast live by Doordarshan).
The soundtrack album was released on October 19, 2018, across platforms (but not physically in India as I write this, compelling me to once again order my CD from the US), peaking at no 3, both on the US (which is Queen’s highest album chart position since 1980!) and the UK’s charts.
While actor Rami Malek – who is brilliant as Mercury – sang some parts in the film, music producers May and Taylor inserted vocal stems from Queen songs. Some parts were filled in with Canadian vocalist Marc Martel, a winner of the ‘Queen Extravaganza Live Tour’ audition.
The title song
Meanwhile, Queen’s 1975 single, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, re-entered the US singles chart for a third time this week and for the third separate decade. This was feat was previously achieved by Prince’s ‘1999’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.
- It also buttresses the fact that Mercury was a very complex person; flippant and funny on the surface, as explained by guitarist May, but also with concealed insecurities and problems in levelling his life with his childhood.
The song is taken from Queen’s fourth album, ‘A Night at the Opera’, and was first released in October 1975, reached no 9 in 1976 in the US. It peaked at no 2 on the back of the success of the movie Wayne’s World in 1992, where it featured in a pivotal scene. In the UK, the song topped the charts when it released and also following Mercury’s demise in 1991.
The track probably helps understand Mercury as a person. It is obviously autobiographical, reflecting on his personal traumas. It also buttresses the fact that Mercury was a very complex person; flippant and funny on the surface, as explained by guitarist May, but also with concealed insecurities and problems in levelling his life with his childhood.
Mercury attempted to hide his Parsi heritage at the beginning of his professional musical life, the reasons for which only he could have made clear. What becomes clear in the movie is Mercury moving away from his family, attempting to gain musical and personal independence, and becoming part of a family that shifts from the personal to professional (Queen). Through this journey, the film effectively showcases Mercury’s emerging talent, confidence, amazing resilience and his wicked sense of humour.
Nevertheless, nobody goes to a movie expecting a history lesson, as Rolling Stone magazine succinctly pointed out. It manages to pack the entire narrative of a unique rock band like Queen into 2 hours and 14 minutes. This obviously necessitates a fair amount of difficult decisions, which would’ve been particularly hard for band members May and Taylor, who are also the executive producers, and their existing manager, Jim Beach, who doubles up as the producer.
While moments like Freddie Mercury’s first show with the band and Queen’s triumphant set at Live Aid undoubtedly needed to be shown, there is simply no room to delve into every album and tour of their two-decade long career.
So whether Bohemian Rhapsody is the real life, or just fantasy…it really does not matter to me as a fan!
Parag Kamani is a rock and pop music aficionado.