Bohemian Rhapsdy: Rock Musical Dominated by Rami Malek’s Magnetism

The main reasons to see the flawed biopic, only semi-effectively directed by Bryan Singer (who was eventually fired) is Rami Malek’s charismatic performance and Queen’s glorious music.

The role of Freddie Mercury is challenging, to say the least. Not only did the actor have to be able to convey Mercury’s emotional complexity, but, given the film’s many recreations of Queen’s live performances, he also had to understand about movement and dance, which were so important to Mercury’s stage persona.

Producer Graham King notes: “Freddie was a guy who didn’t stand for anything. He was a fighter. It wasn’t easy being an immigrant in the UK in those days. He didn’t become a star immediately, he wasn’t an overnight success. He became one by fighting, by not accepting ‘no,’ by not being negative and by always fighting back from the knocks with something bigger and better. That’s what Queen managed to do so well in their music. Every time you thought you’d heard the best of Queen, a song would come along and blow your mind.”

Rami Malek, the Emmy-winning, Los Angeles-born star of TV’s Mr. Robot, was the actor who King and the filmmakers chose to play Mercury. Malek loved the music and was thrilled about having the chance to find out more about this musical icon. “I knew that Queen was massive and Freddie Mercury was an icon and a hero to so many,” says Malek. “But I don’t think I completely understood just how important he is to so many people across the world. Queen’s fan base is massive. I was always a fan of Queen and Freddie Mercury, but it was only when I started researching the band that I realized they began in the 1970s, when they all had long hair and black fingernails and wore outrageous outfits. I think 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.”

“When you set out to play Freddie Mercury, you think, how am I ever going to fill those shoes?” he says. “I just attacked it as I would any other role. So 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 center, who was trying to discover his identity. That was something I knew how to tackle. If I could start there I would be able to have the initial building blocks that get you the confidence to do all those other things.

“One thing about Freddie Mercury that’s absolutely undeniable is his magnetism. “When he was on stage, holding that half mic, or sitting at the piano, he feels 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’re the only person in the room–and it’s that exchange that makes him one of the most unique and remarkable and revolutionary artists of our time or any time.”

Graham King concurs: “No one could command an audience like Freddie could. He knew how to play to the guy in the back of the stadium. He thought about the outcasts. He thought about people getting bullied in the world. He thought about the guy that can’t afford to be here. And he gave what he got from his roots. I don’t think he ever lost the roots of where Freddie Mercury came from and what it meant to him. And I think the songs he created was a part of Freddie’s persona that ‘yes, I might be the singer, but we can all sing along. We can all love each other. We can all try and find a place to get along in this world.’ And I think that meant so much to him.”

Band as Family

For Malek, one of the biggest themes of the film is the sense of family and how family protects and cherishes. When Paul Prenter is hired as an assistant to the band‘s manager John Reid, the band, Mercury’s de facto family, is torn apart. Prenter inveigles himself into Mercury’s confidence and encourages him to indulge his hedonism. He also convinces Mercury to leave the band and strike out on his own in Germany. “The band sees Paul as being cunning and conniving,“ says Malek. “He leads Freddie down a path that became very dark–the parties, the clubs, the drugs, the alcohol. It takes a visit from Mary Austin, the person closest to him, for him to realize that the people he knows in Munich aren’t real family and don’t have his interests at heart. It’s his realization that he’s lost a part of himself and that he’s lost the band that is ultimately his moment of reckoning. He realizes how much he depends on these other guys in this band and on her. “

Trust from Brian May and Roger Taylor

Brian May and Roger Taylor were involved in the film. “Having Brian and Roger involved was crucial,“ Malek says. “No one knows their story and this band more than the two of them, so their insight was invaluable. It was also a terrific boost to our confidence just having them there cheering us on. Knowing that they were there and watching raised our game. It’s very difficult putting your story in the hands of strangers, but we really got to know them, and there was this trust level where we did not want to let them down.”

Movement Coach

When it came to preparing for the live concert scenes, Malek took an unusual approach. “I knew I was going to have to sing, to do a British accent, to move all over the stage, and I knew I needed a movement coach,” he says. “I met Polly Bennett, and we immediately hit it off.”

As movement coach, Bennett helped the actor identify and interpret how Freddie Mercury moved. “Movement isn’t just the performance,” explains Bennett. “It’s everything the character is and has ever been.”

Bennett began by looking into Freddie Mercury’s heritage, specifically what she dubs his movement heritage, where his every memory of how a song was performed would influence the way he performed it himself.

“Rami and I went through that process with all of the songs to think about what happened to Freddie before a particular moment, meaning his physicality would be a certain way. We traced all the events that happened to him from the 1950s to 1985 when the film ends to see how they would impact on his physicality.”

Impact of Zanzibar

Bennett cites Freddie‘s being a boxer, golfer and long-distance runner during his childhood as affecting his movement later in life. “You can see the punches in his performances, you can see how he lifts up his knees when he runs and how he sometimes uses the microphone as a golf club. These are all evidence of his physical muscle memory.  He was brought up in Zanzibar with its specific culture, and this shows in his use of embellishment and colors in his clothes. We also noticed the little tricks he did to cover his teeth, especially in the early years, and how he loses that as he gets older and more confident, singing with a much wider mouth and smiling on stage.“

Liza Minnelli and David Bowie

Freddie’s love of Liza Minnelli and the film Cabaret, his interest in the work of the film’s director-choreographer Bob Fosse are obvious.  And so is his admiration for opera and its glamorous divas as well as his contemporaries Mick Jagger and David Bowie. “Rami and I worked on giving a little bit of a Bowie shape here or a Liza Minnelli hand movement there in his performances in the early ‘70s which then disappeared as he started to embrace his homosexuality. You have to remember that homosexuality was only decriminalized when he was 20, and it would have had a huge effect on his sense of space and his attitude with other people. But as he writes more songs and becomes famous, he becomes bolder.”

The Live Aid scenes presented their own challenges for Bennett, especially because they came right at the start of the shoot. “Freddie performed in front of that huge audience,” she recalls, “so I had to get Rami to a place where he could be nimble and agile and in the moment. We started working on ‘Radio Ga Ga,’ and he had everything down in about three hours–every eye look, every turn, every flick of the microphone. From there, he picked it up very quickly, and it became completely fluid and organic and spontaneous, so he filled the stadium and addressed everyone in it. The real challenge for him was finding the stamina to carry on.”

One of the most fun scenes for Bennett was the “Killer Queen” performance on Top of the Pops. “Freddie is very flamboyant there,” she says. “It’s fur coats, nail varnish, rings, adornments and long hair. He’s quite thin and wily and has an elegance of poise and posing. Rami is completely opposite to that, so he really enjoyed exploring that arena. Freddie also didn‘t have the pressure of singing it live because it was mimed to a playback, so he can overact.”

The collaboration with Bennett proved indispensable to Malek. As the actor explains: “We didn’t want an impersonation of Freddie, but rather to understand why he did what he did. So looking at all those performers and films and choreographers who influenced him was incredibly useful in getting to the heart of how he moved and performed.”

The culmination of their hard work was the Live Aid scenes. “Stepping out onto that stage for the Live Aid scenes was the most remarkable feeling,” says Malek. “Even though there wasn’t an audience there, it was completely nerve-wracking. But also invigorating. I mean, they had recreated that stage perfectly, so you got the feeling that it’s the real deal.”

Says Graham King: “We didn’t want an impersonation of Freddie. We wanted Rami to bring something of his own to it, but we also wanted to keep the Freddie movements that are so iconic. Polly had a great blend of that. She did it so well. She and Rami worked so hard together in creating the character. Rami has done an incredible job. I’d seen Mr. Robot, so I knew he could deliver, but the pressure to play such an iconic figure was still very high. We’re talking about a band that has millions of fans out there that have been anticipating this film. Can we please the Queen fans, the diehard Queen fans? Rami’s unbelievable. I can proudly say it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen for a very, very long time.”

Aidan Gillen, who plays John Reid, praises Rami Malek: “What Rami did was something extraordinary, it’s a detailed, passionate, risky, uncanny performance.”

“Rami is extraordinary,” concurs Gwilym Lee who plays Brian May. “He’s in pretty much every scene of the film, and he worked so hard. Freddie was loved by millions, and there is a weight of responsibility that comes with that. Rami really embodied his passion and his energy, and he found a real tenderness and humanity to this character that not many people know. For the concert scenes, Rami had to learn everything Freddie did and then forget it to make it come across as though it’s spontaneous and in-the-moment, and he’s done it brilliantly.”