Was it the real life? Or was it just fantasy?
Bohemian Rhapsody is a story of the British rock band Queen and more so of its legendary frontman’s meteoric rise to fame and tragic end. The movie was panned by the majority of critics for its affectionate, manicured version of the band’s stardom and Freddie Mercury’s pompous life and persona. On the other hand, the general movie consumers thought the movie offered solid entertainment value and ostensible musical spectacle.
Most of the credits goes to Rami Malek who carried the movie with gusto and dedication, immortalizing Freddie Mercury’s flamboyant character, infamous rabbity overbite, and extravagant stage shows that eschew the conventions of rock’s aggressive masculine image.
With its hugely conventional biopic formula and crammed storytelling from Queen’s inspiring start to its indisputable triumph, you’ll get a sense of how moviegoers are ushered in a whirlwind through the band’s creative pursuits and drama leading up to the glorious Live Aid concert. However, those who have known the real history of Queen and Freddie Mercury’s road to glory might seem at odds as to how the biopic projects a sanitized version of the true events– two being that of Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis and sexuality. Of course, there’s also the band’s story which was shown relatively free of bump. There wasn’t much drama injected to Queen’s rise. This resulted to a dreary, smooth progress from the band’s early student gigs to sold-out concerts. There was the impression that almost nothing happened the way it’s being presented.
So how does Bohemian Rhapsody really compare to what really happened in real life?
REEL: The movie begins in 1970 with Freddie (born Farrokh Bulsara), a Parsi immigrant from India, unloading luggage from planes at Heathrow Airport. Within minutes, we see him in a bar’s back alley talking and singing his way into joining the struggling rock band, Smile, after its lead vocalist, Tim Staffell (Jack Roth), suddenly quit. Impressed by his voice, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) readily accepts Freddie as their new lead vocalist.
REAL: According to the authorized biographies about Queen, Mercury already knew May, Taylor, and Staffell before Smile disbanded- the four even shared an apartment together. Having said that, Freddie replacing Tim wasn’t as impromptu as the movie suggests.
Freddie Mercury & Mary Austin’s Love Story
REEL: Before Freddie made a spontaneous audition that night to join what is to become Queen, he first bumps into a young and beautiful Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). The two establishes an immediate connection. Having known that Mary works at a clothing store, he visits her soon after and their relationship blossoms from there.
REAL: While Bohemian Rhapsody generally portrays Freddie and Mary’s enduring love for each other faithfully on the big screen, the movie counterparts experienced things a bit differently in real life.
In fact, Queen’s guitarist Brian May revealed he used to date Mary Austin before Freddie met Mary for the first time in the clothing store where she worked as a receptionist. Freddie asked permission from Brian first before asking Mary out, which took him nearly six months to do.
As in the movie, it was true that Freddie proposed to her and they remained close even after they parted ways by the late ‘70s. This was also around the time Freddie had experimented with drugs and his sexuality. Indeed, he dedicated the song “Love of my Life” to his then longtime girlfriend. When Freddie died in 1991 due to an AIDS-related illness, he left half of his estate and Garden Lodge home to Mary.
Freddie’s Partying, Sexual and Drug-Addled Life
REEL: In Bohemian Rhapsody, we got to see a glimpse of Freddie’s rockstar life in weird montages that suggest his fabulous partying lifestyle in gay clubs and a hint of his participation in drug-fuelled gay orgies.
REAL: Freddie’s sexuality gets downplayed in Bohemian Rhapsody. While Queen are well-known legends for their immortal music, Freddie himself was known for his wild partying and sexually-charged personality. However, the movie failed to go in-depth about Freddie’s hedonism and instead made it as wholesome as possible to target more demographics.
The movie has been criticized for its lack of specifics and how it represented a polished version of Freddie’s rather adulterated career and personal life. The movie’s polite undertones make it more of an obituary than an inquiry into the lead character’s unchartered life.
Ray Foster, Who Refused to Release “Bohemian Rhapsody”
REEL: Ray Foster (Mike Myers), an overbearing executive at EMI, refuses to release the ‘nonsense’ six-minute track “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single. Instead, he wants the unruly band to stick to their tried-and-tested formula. Queen don’t listen and leave Foster’s office, but not without throwing a big rock into his office window and telling Foster how he just lose the band.
REAL: Although this was a golden moment in the film, it didn’t really happen in real life to Ray Foster. His character was just made up for the movie. Foster’s character in the film is a composite of several EMI record executives who were wary about “Bohemian Rhapsody” having a slim chance of getting played on the radio.
Regardless, Freddie surreptitiously had DJ Kenny Everett play the song in his radio show. Much like what appears in the movie in which the screen swims in negative reviews, Queen was initially vindicated after the single’s release.
As we all know today, “Bohemian Rhapsody” morphed to become one of the greatest rock songs ever composed in history, garnering a Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004.
Bohemian Rhapsody’s Villain: Paul Prenter
REEL: All the other characters in Bohemian Rhapsody were quite nice and rounded. Well, except for the portrayal of the band’s assistant manager and later Freddie’s personal assistant, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Paul acts as the movie’s sole villain. He is protrayed as scheming and manipulative, causing the break up between Freddie and the band. When an increasingly ill Freddie goes solo, Paul takes advantage of his fame and fortune to host parties and groupies in Munich. However, his hold of Freddie comes to an end when Freddie discovers that Paul withheld information from him about the upcoming Live Aid concert. Paul is fired and in turn divulges ugly aspects of Freddie’s personal life to the media.
REAL: In real life, Freddie apparently fired Paul for another reason and this wasn’t until 1986– a year after the Live Aid performance. Freddie sacked Paul for throwing a party at Freddie’s residence and trashing the place thereafter. Paul didn’t out Freddie on national television, but instead sold Freddie’s story to a British tabloid, The Sun, for $35,000.
What the movie made quite right was how Paul became a ‘bad influence’ to Freddie as said by May and Taylor in later interviews. Paul’s impact on Freddie and consequently on the band was harmful.
Paul Prenter died due to an AIDS-related disease in 1991, just a few months before Freddie’s death in November of the same year.
Freddie Mercury’s AIDS Diagnosis
REEL: One of the movie’s most heart-rending moments is when Freddie learns he has tested HIV positive after a consultation with a doctor. This discovery happens before the band’s Live Aid appearance in 1985. Just a week before the historical concert, Freddie announces his condition to the band, making the trio teary-eyed upon hearing about it. This motivates the band, especially Freddie, to give an electrifying, show-stealing performance at Live Aid, eclipsing other sets from the charity event.
REAL: But Freddie’s HIV-positive discovery didn’t actually happen until two years after the Live Aid concert. Moreover, he didn’t immediately make his bandmates aware of his condition. Although they were suspicious and much buzz in tabloids centered around Freddie’s frail looks, it took the frontman two years to inform the band about his illness, and only went public about it a day before his death in 1991.
There are other inaccuracies about Freddie Mercury’s life depicted in the film, such as Roger Taylor going solo before Freddie did and the timeline of which the songs in the movie were released. But I surmise that the rearrangement of the events in the film were made to position the band’s success at Live Aid as Freddie’s monumental redemption. This is how formulaic Hollywood biopics are, and it’s no surprise how the reel can hugely deviate from the facts.
Nonetheless, the movie gives the audience a sense of what it’s really like in the band during their heyday and reminds us of how influential Queen was to modern music. For all its technical shortcomings, you’ll be hard pressed to find any movie that displays the power of Queen’s music as well as Bohemian Rhapsody does. Watching the film was a joyful, fabulous ride with all its hooks and crowd-pleasing performances that a general viewer can easily forget everything that’s lacking or wrong about it.