When asked what makes Queen different from any other band, Freddie Mercury is quick with an answer. “We’re four misfits who don’t belong together, we’re playing for the other misfits. They’re the outcasts, right at the back of the room. We’re pretty sure they don’t belong either. We belong to them.”
In 1980, when Queen’s “The Game” came out, I was that eight-year-old misfit. Too chubby, too weird, too loud, too nice. I hated school because it meant getting beat up every single day. And even on a day when I’d get the opportunity to bring in a record for music class, the other kids would all make fun of me. I didn’t listen to popular music, but brought in the band’s “News of the World” album, with a Frank Kelly Freas cover of a robot killing people, including Queen itself. No one liked it. In fact, they hated it. But when “Another One Bites the Dust” came out that year, more than a few of them learned about the power of Queen.
Queen was always too much in the best of ways. They’ve continued to be there for the best and worst moments of my life. In fact, the solo on “We Will Rock You” is probably my favorite of all time, as you can hear the hum of Brian May’s guitar even before the first note is played. When this movie was announced, I worried, as how could any movie, no matter how huge, capture the spirit of Queen?
Originally announced in 2010, with Sacha Baron Cohen cast as Mercury before leaving in 2013 because of creative differences, the film sat unmade until Rami Malek (TV’s Mr. Robot) was cast in November 2016.
Directed by Bryan Singer (the X-Men films, Apt Pupil and The Usual Suspects), the film concentrates on Freddie Mercury while also touching on the rest of the band.
It starts when young Farrokh Bulsara is just a college student and airport baggage handler who has been following a band named Smile. After one of their shows, he meets Brian May (Gwilym Lee, guitarist in the band Male Friends and a near identical twin for the man he’s playing) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, who played Archangel in Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse). With their lead singer quitting, he joins the band along with bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello, the kid from the original Jurassic Park).
After selling their van to finance their first album, the band quickly signs to EMI, travels to America and Freddie adopts his stage name as his real name. He also gets engaged to Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, who is great in this) while beginning to question his sexuality, including a scene where he stares at a truck driver played by Adam Lambert, who has performed with Queen.
That’s the crux of people’s worries with the film — that the movie plays hard and fast with the facts of Mercury’s sexuality and AIDS-related death. Many believe Mercury learned he had HIV between 1986 and 1987, but not before Live Aid in 1985 as depicted in the film. He didn’t tell the band until 1989.
But back to the movie — when Queen record their fourth album “A Night at the Opera” they end up leaving EMI when Ray Foster (a made-up person loosely based on EMI chief Roy Featherstone, who was actually a fan of the song) refuses to release a six-minute long single. There’s an interesting meta moment here, as Foster is played by Mike Myers, whose use of the song in Wayne’s World led to it being loved by a whole new generation. The best part of this scene is the triumph of the song being released, only for horrible reviews to emerge. Such is Queen — they didn’t belong to critics.
Freddie falls for Paul, the band’s manager, and comes out as bisexual to his fiancee. They live next to one another for years, but Freddie is hurt when she finally moves on. The band has ups and downs, but Freddie decides to leave in 1982, recording an album for CBS for more money than he could make with Queen.
This is another fallacy, as doing a solo record is seen as Freddie sinning against the band. The trust is that Taylor released “Fun in Space” and “Strange Frontier” while May released “Star Fleet Project” years before Mercury’s “Mr. Bad Guy” was recorded.
Also, remember that when the band breaks up before Live Aid, that never happened. Queen released “The Works” in 1984 and toured all over the world to support it, with the final date just two weeks before they played that massive charity event.
That said, the end of the movie is amazing. The performance at Live Aid is captured perfectly, featuring the songs “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Radio Ga Ga”, “Hammer to Fall” and “We Are the Champions.” I also thought that they used archival footage of Bob Geldof, but it’s really Dermot Murphy. In a nice bit of caemo work, look for Brian May and Roger Taylor in this scene as they watch from the rafters.
Interestingly enough, Singer didn’t even finish the film. He often showed up late to set or disappeared for long stretches, including three straight days after the Thanksgiving break, at which point cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel took over. Singer was fired and 20th Century Fox terminated his production deal before finishing the movie with new director Dexter Fletcher, who is also directing the Elton John bio Rocketman. However, the Director’s Guild assigned sole directed credit to Singer.
If you’re seeking an examination of Mercury’s refusal to come out and how he dealt with AIDS, as well as his identity as Indian-British Parsi man, this isn’t that movie. This is Queen’s greatest hits, an exploration of their music less than one of the truth. It’s packed with plenty of audience-pleasing moments instead of personal revelations. Maybe we’ll get that movie someday. This isn’t it. And that’s fine — I never expected it to be.