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Freddie Mercury: The Movie

Freddie Mercury was one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived. The British singer with that marvelous voice strutted across stages in his outrageous costumes as the lead singer of the rock band Queen, dazzling the whole world. Their hits, such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Are the Champions” and “Another One Bites the Dust” will live forever.

Mercury and Queen are the subjects of a splendid, engaging new movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, that opened last weekend. It is a biography of Mercury, a man who never quite fit in anywhere except on the stage, picking up his story as a teenager, but it is also a tribute to Queen and their legendary music and concerts, that drew huge audiences and sensational critical review across the earth. 

The film begins with music and ends in a glorious musical finale with Freddie and the band singing their smash hit We Are the Champions at the 1985 Live Aid concert, broadcast worldwide, at Wembley stadium, London (somewhere in the world, any hour of the day, that song is played at a sporting event, whether Premier League soccer in the UK or Little League baseball in the United States).

In between that opening and closing film music lies Freddie’s turbulent life. One night in the early 1970s he stumbled into a conversation with the members of the unknown rock band Queen just after their lead singer left the group. They heard Freddie sing and took him on. He pushed the group, hard, and they finally cut a record and then, after people heard it, were taken on by one of the UK’s top music managers.

Enjoying a little bit of stability, Queen then recorded their classic six-minute operatic song,Bohemian Rhapsody, (yes, the one with the falsetto “Galileo, Galileo, Figaro”) which critics panned and most people said would never even be played on radio or television because it was too long. With Bohemian Rhapsody and other songs, the band had found their sound and went on to worldwide fame.

Queen was one of the most successful bands in music history. Among their biggest hits wereBohemian Rhapsody, We Are the Champions, Another One Bites the Dust, We Will Rock You, Crazy Little Thing Called Love andSomebody to Love.

They are the second biggest selling group in UK history with 25 million records (the Beatles have 27 million). Bohemian Rhapsody spent an amazing 17 weeks on the charts. In a global 2005 music poll, We Are the Champions was voted the favorite song of all time worldwide.

That is the overall story in Bohemian Rhapsody. The second story, far more powerful, is Freddie’s tale. He falls in love with a young woman and marries her. He is then attracted to men, lots of them. It breaks up the marriage. He can’t let his wife go, though, and has her move into a mansion next door to his mansion. One of his male lovers moves in with him and ruins his career by keeping him way from his friends and getting him to leave the band. In the end, Freddie gets AIDS and dies (he was just 45). It is a movie that is sadder still because just about everybody knows that Freddie died young and it is tough to watch on screen.

Director Bryan Singer has done a superb job of keeping the Freddie Mercury personal story alive and strong within the overall story of the group and all of that majestic music. Singer gets a mesmerizing performance from Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. He is outlandish and he is meek, braggadocios and humble. In love with everybody and in love with himself, perhaps too much. Malek makes Freddie a lovable but very complex and moody character. Singer does not go overboard on Freddie’s death, but showcases it as more of a tribute. Freddie was not originally British. He was of Parsi descent and born in Zanzibar. His conservative parents raised him in India. They moved to England when Freddie was a teenager. 

Singer also gets fine performances from Lucy Boynton as Freddie’s wife Mary, Allen Leech as male lover Paul and Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joe Mazzello as Queen’s other band members.

The movie does have its faults. Not enough attention is paid to Freddie’s fans, millions of them, and why they loved Queen so much. There also needs to be a way to place Queen among its competitors, such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elton John. Where did Queen fit into that music universe? The screenplay, by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan sags a bit in the middle of the story and needs to be tightened up.

The movie is a primer in music history of the ‘70s and ‘80s. You learn a great deal about how the music business worked then. I loved the story of the secret deal in which an American music company stole Freddie away from the band. You also learn a lot about how television deals with rock, and how rock music management works, sometimes well and sometimes not so well. The move showcases concert production. How do all those stage hands to their job and how does everybody in a large stadium hear the music so well?

In the theater where I saw the film, packed with people, the entire crowd remained until the end of the long list of credits because next to the credits was real footage of Freddie Mercury singing. He stopped and then everybody got up and left.

About ten years ago, I was on a cruise ship and having dinner with a British family. There was a sixtyish grandmother, fortyish single mom and her 15-year-old teenage son. I asked the son who his favorite all time performer was and he said without any hesitancy, “Freddie Mercury.” I asked his mom the same question and she said, “Oh, Freddie Mercury.” Then grandma, big smile on her face, chimed in, “yes, Freddie Mercury.”

Mercury and his gorgeous voice and stage pizzazz will forever.

Queen- they are the champions.