Rami Malek resurrects Freddie Mercury with Bohemian Rhapsody and brings alive the magic of Queen

Born as Farooq Bulsara to an Indian Parsi family, Freddie redefined and transcended stereotypes, just as Queen’s music refuses to be slotted into any traditional genre.
Rami Malek
Rami Malek

The unforgettable intro of We Will Rock You, the soaring chorus of We Are the Champions, the mesmerising operatics of Bohemian Rhapsody — who isn’t moved to sing along when they hear these anthems? And who can forget that moment the Live Aid concert of 1985 suddenly moved into fifth gear when Freddie Mercury got on stage and sent the crowd into a frenzy of communal singing? It has been  over 25 years since the death of Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury — yet, his music lives on. Born as Farooq Bulsara to an Indian Parsi family, Freddie redefined and transcended stereotypes, just as Queen’s music refuses to be slotted into any traditional genre. Perhaps, that’s why, the band remains a cross-generational, multicultural and global phenomenon.

Now, Rami Malek (of Mr Robot fame) dons the skintight cat-suit and grabs the microphone to take on the role of the musician in Bohemian Rhapsody, a foot-stomping celebration of Queen’s music and Mercury’s extraordinary life. We take a peek behind the scenes of the film — delving into what went into researching the film, getting the hair, makeup, costumes and location right, and how Queen’s founding members were a major contributing force in making this biopic happen. 

Top of the pops
Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor were a part of Bohemian Rhapsody, to ensure that the film remained true to history. “The film is telling their life stories, and no one knows it better than them,” says producer Graham King. “You can read as many books and articles, and watch as many videos and interviews, but to actually sit with the guys and go through the history, who can tell you anecdotes about Freddie that you’d never find out today, that meant the world to me. The bottom line for me is for everyone involved to be proud of a movie about their life stories that’s going to be shown around the world.”
It’s not surprising that Freddie Mercury still holds a special place in Brian May’s heart. “There are too many memories of Freddie,” he recalls. “I remember that wicked smile and sparkle in his eye. And he would say something totally inappropriate and wicked. But he was just funny and nice, and he didn’t have a bad bone in his body. He did have quite a quick temper though, and he would react, but underneath that he was shy. I remember the great warmth Freddie had, and how he wouldn’t waste any time on anything. He was always focused, he always knew what he wanted to get out of a situation. And that’s a good lesson to learn.”

One of the scenes that May was particularly pleased to see included in the film was of the band’s first appearance on the popular TV show Top of the Pops in 1974, featuring Killer Queen, which propelled the band to international stardom. Says May, “It was  very strange for us, because BBC policy then was that nobody played live, you played to track, and the singer lip-synced. It never felt comfortable for us because we were very much a live act. But it made us decide to make the video for Bohemian Rhapsody, as we knew we’d look ridiculous standing on stage, miming to that. The track got to number one and stayed there for six weeks, so Top of the Pops played the video for six weeks. That video really turned us into stars.” Malek kind of magic 

Finding the right actors to take on the roles was a daunting task, particularly when it came to casting Freddie. The role was challenging — not only did the actor have to convey his emotional complexity, but given the film’s many re-creations of Queen’s live performances, he also had to understand about movement and dance, which were so important to Mercury’s stage persona. After considering everyone from Adam Lambert to Sacha Baron Cohen, the role finally went to Rami Malek, the Emmy award-winning actor of Mr Robot fame. Malek loved the music and was thrilled about having the chance to play the musical icon. “I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know at least one Queen song. Most people identify Freddie as this crop-haired, mustachioed, tank top wearing, muscular man who had a ton of bravado and machismo. It was astonishing to get to know the many versions, and the very sweet side of him, as well.” 

Malek confesses that Mercury’s shoes were indeed too big to fill, but he attacked it like he would any other role. “I stripped out his achievements in terms of his performing — his ability to rule the stage, his singing, his piano playing— and found a very complicated man at the centre, who was trying to discover his identity.” Mercury’s magnetism was arguably undeniable. “When he was on stage, holding that mic, or sitting at the piano, he felt capable of anything. What was magical about him was the exchange with everyone in the audience, where everyone was allowed to feel the same thing — he could reach you as if you were the only person in the room — that made him one of the most unique, remarkable and revolutionary artistes of our time.”

Don’t stop them now
Tasked with creating the look of the film was production designer Aaron Haye, whose expert eye sought out the locations, which included Bovingdon Airfield in Hertfordshire, the glorious art deco masterpiece Hornsey Town Hall in north London, LH2 Studios in west London, the London nightclub Heaven, and the Edwardian splendour of Bromley Town Hall in South East London. Haye started off by researching images of Queen and Mercury. After sifting through thousands of photos, many with no dates but guided by Freddie’s hairstyles — which got shorter over time — they were able to make a timeline on the wall, that went from 1970 to 1986. “Once we had the timeline, I took a bit of a palette approach and decided on the colours of 1970, 1975, 1978, 1982, etc. We made a longer timeline that had certain touchstones along the way, and we tried to stick to those palettes in between construction, paint, set decoration, wardrobe and everything else. As the ’60s turned into the ’70s, there are wonderful warm tones that are avocado and orange and brown—warm, earthy colours. From the mid to late-’70s, it starts to get almost a disco palette — the primary colours start to pop a little bit more, until we get to the early-’80s, and there’s a neon and brighter coloured palette. These different eras have really distinct looks.” 

One of the most fun sequences for Haye was re-creating the I Want to Break Free video. “The making of the video is pretty well-documented,” he says, “and we wanted to get as close to that as we possibly could. It was loose, and it was fun. We see a bit of the backstage and the area around it. We were lucky enough to find an exact model of the vacuum cleaner that Freddie used, as well as the light-up alarm clock that blows out steam at the beginning of the video. And we used an original 35 mm camera, that we see on camera. We shot it on 35 mm just like the original.”

Under pressure

Working alongside Haye to create the look of the film were costume designer Julian Day, and makeup and hair designer Jan Sewell. One of the boldest costumes in the film, Freddie’s crown and red cape, which he wears in the party scene at Garden Lodge, was made by the two people who worked on it originally. “Some of the costumes are taken out of context slightly in the film, but we wanted to include some of his iconic costumes, because we knew that’s what people would want to see,” says Day, adding that no costume in the film was worn more than once. Makeup in-charge Jan Swell adds, “There are so many videos where you can see all of Freddie’s different looks. We weren’t sure we’d be able to show all their different hairstyles. So we had to decide which we thought were the strongest looks.” There were two key areas where Sewell had to use prosthetics —Freddie’s signature teeth and his aquiline nose. Sewell tested several pairs of teeth on Malek to ensure they would look just right on camera. “Freddie was very aware of his teeth. He chose not to get them fixed, and a lot of what he did was hiding them, which meant a lot of mouth movement. So it was very important to get the right size, so that Rami felt he could do those mannerisms. For the nose, we made a gelatin nose that was applied every day.” 
And then, of course, there was the multitude of wigs and false mustaches. “As Malek had just come off filming Mr Robot, there was no time to wait for him to grow his hair. So he wears a wig in every scene. And as the hair got longer and then shorter, the moustache had to get heavier and lighter to balance well,” she adds. 

Rami Malek
Rami Malek

Somebody to love
The most important part about a Queen biopic remains its music. Music supervisor Becky Bentham was responsible for creating the film’s soundtrack, using both Freddie’s real voice, a soundalike and Rami. “We were lucky to have access to all the original vocal recordings and all the original band recordings,” she explains. “In addition, we had a sound-alike for sections where recordings don’t exist, as well as Rami’s performances, which formed a library of materials that we then turned into a soundtrack that was as authentic as possible.” The tracks were recorded at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios. “I remember Rami walking in for our first recording session and looking up to see a picture of Queen and 
Freddie staring down at him! It was daunting in one way, but an endorsement in another, and it really added to the experience,” she adds. Graham King has high hopes for the film and its message for the younger generation. “I hope that if there’s anyone in the audience who is confused or being bullied or feeling like an outcast, they would take to heart what Mary says to Freddie in the film, ‘Don’t you see who you can be? Anything you want to be.’ That’s a very important message in today’s world.” Rami agrees. “I hope that everyone leaves the film as inspired by Freddie’s story as I am, feeling confident, feeling inspired.”

All hail, Freddie Mercury!

“There are so few people behind the glamour, who really make it as true performers. It’s a 
very strange thoroughbred condition to be a 
successful musician, and still be able to project 
it with confidence. Freddie had that, and there are not many people who have had it.” 
— Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin)

“There are people these days who can do things on the guitar which are beyond my reach. There’s one guy who plays with Queen who can do things I would dream of doing. I sincerely mean that.”
— Eric Clapton
“Freddie  was  a  unique  talent... a one-off! 
When we lost Freddie, we not only lost a great personality, a man with a great sense of humour, a true showman, but we lost probably the best. He could sing anything in any style. He could change his style from line to line, and that’s an art. He was brilliant at it.”
— Roger Daltrey (The Who)

“Someone told me that I might have the chance to sing with Queen... and I was like, ‘Don’t ask me twice. I’ll be there!’” 
— James Hetfield (Metallica)

“All I’ve got on my iPod is every single Queen song and every single Judas Priest song. Queen was an incredible heavy metal band. I saw them on their first ever tour, at Birmingham Town Hall. They just blew me away.” 
— Rob Halford (Judas Priest)

“If I didn’t have Freddie Mercury’s lyrics to hold on to as a kid, I don’t know where I would be. It taught me about all forms of music. It would open my mind. I never really had a bigger teacher in my whole life.” 
— Axl Rose (Guns n’ Roses)

“Every band should study Queen at Live Aid…
I consider Freddie the greatest frontman of 
all time. You know how he controlled Wembley Stadium at Live Aid in 1985? He stood up there, and did his vocal warm-ups with the audience. Something that intimate, where they realise, ‘Oh yeah, he’s just a dude.” 
— Dave Grohl (Nirvana, The Foo Fighters) 

“Freddie is great. At a time when everybody around was doing God knows what, Queen was making music.” 
— Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath) 

Freddie fact file 

As a child, between the ages of nine and 12, Freddie enjoyed collecting stamps. His personal album included stamps from Britain, Monaco, Eastern Europe, Aden (now a part of Yemen) and Zanzibar. The collection was bought by The Postal Museum (in the UK) in 1993.

Freddie co-owned and ran a stall in Kensington Market in London with Roger Taylor, which opened in 1969. They sold Freddie’s own artwork as well as second-hand clothes. The two of them kept running the stall, even after Queen released their first album in 1973.

Other than his passion for music, one of Freddie’s favourite hobbies was shopping, mainly for other people. He loved buying expensive perfumes, cologne, watches and jewellery.

Despite not believing in astrology, Freddie designed Queen’s crest using the astrological signs of the four members — two Leos, one Cancer and one Virgo.

Queen weren’t about to release Another One Bites the Dust as a single until Michael Jackson convinced them. It became the most successful American single of their career.

An asteroid was named after Freddie to commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday in September 2016. The International Astronomical Union designated asteroid 17473 as ‘Freddiemercury’. The asteroid was discovered in 1991, the same year Freddie died.

Bohemian Rhapsody is slated for release today

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