There’s a scene in Bohemian Rhapsody where, at a party in early 1980, Queen’s lead vocalist Freddie Mercury, played outstandingly by actor Rami Malek, is shown hamming it up with other guests while “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” plays in the background.
When the Queen song finishes, it is followed by “Super Freak,” the Rick James punk-funk classic.
The only problem? “Super Freak” wasn’t recorded until a year later.
And that’s probably the smallest of several timeline inaccuracies that play out in the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, which opened in theaters on Friday to mixed reviews and still grossed enough ($50M) to top the box office in the U.S.
I’d read some of the professional critics’ reviews of the film before seeing it on Sunday, and they weren’t all flattering. Several of them downgraded it for what they called a lackluster script or a lack of energy, claiming that lead actor Rami Malek was the movie’s lone bright spot with his spot-on portrayal of the group’s legendary lead singer.
Others criticized the movie for altering facts around several of the relationships Mercury had. For instance, the notion that he and his Queen band mates were strangers in the early 1970s after Brian May and Roger Taylor parted ways with a former lead singer wasn’t true. The three had already been acquaintances and had played together since the 1960s before Mercury replaced the other singer.
Critics picked apart other details of the film, too, like how Mercury proposed to girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), or the nature of their breakup. And how Mary and Mercury’s final boyfriend, Jim Hutton, weren’t as chummy as the film portrayed.
My expectations of the film were lowered accordingly. I was prepared for some of the dramatic fiction that was included to make the storyline more compelling, like having actor Mike Myers (of Wayne’s World fame) portray a fictional EMI record exec in an obvious nod to the role Wayne’s World played in giving the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” a second chart life in 1991-92.
But little prepared me for the alternate Queen musical reality that awaited me as I reclined my chair at the local AMC Theater for the Sunday matinée showing of this highly anticipated film.
For anyone who knows the legendary group’s discography, particularly when songs were released and the order of things, it was enough to make one shout out loud, “Please do stop it… now!”
The first “error” occurred during the film’s depiction of the band’s 1975 arrival in America in the wake of its initial success here after the single “Killer Queen” broke the group stateside. The song “Fat Bottomed Girls” played as the band embarked on its first U.S. tour.
Problem was that song wasn’t released for another three years… in 1978, after the band had already become superstars with the success of songs like “You’re My Best Friend,” “Somebody To Love,” “We Will Rock You,” “We Are The Champions” and, of course, the movie’s titular track.
Then there was the inexcusable leap in the movie’s timeline from 1977 to 1980 and the aforementioned party scene – skipping arguably some of Queen’s most creative years. My first thought was what happened to their huge 1977 twin rock anthems “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions”? How could they possibly leave either of them out of the story?
That would be explained later – in what was perhaps the most liberal take on the band’s discography in the film. But first, we had to accept the fictional tale of how “Another One Bites The Dust” was created in 1980 (that part’s true) – when the band was convinced by its manager to go disco after Michael Jackson had accounted for “four percent of all worldwide record sales the year before.”
The problem there?
While it’s true that the future King Of Pop, who had befriended several of the band’s members, famously suggested that Queen should release “Dust” as a single from their album The Game, Michael Jackson’s phenomenal success had not yet occurred – at least not to the tune of “four percent of all worldwide record sales.” His Thriller album wasn’t released until 1982 and even if you attributed that kind of success to Off The Wall, it certainly didn’t account for four percent of all worldwide sales in 1979. The bulk of that album’s sales came in 1980, likely after “Another One Bites The Dust” had already been recorded and included in The Game.
But even that bit of artistic freedom didn’t prepare me for how – or more accurately – when “We Will Rock You” purportedly came to be. Per the film, it was circa 1980 or 1981, after the success of “Another One Bites The Dust,” when Queen’s other three members had become frustrated with Mercury’s tardiness to practice sessions and they randomly began playing with the concept of an audience participation anthem that would be played at sporting events.
It was during one particular session that the song’s famous “stomp-stomp-clap” rhythmic foundation was laid, and the rest – as they say – was history.
Except, “We Will Rock You” had been created much earlier in Queen’s history, like four years earlier – in 1977 – before “Another One Bites The Dust,” before “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and before “Crazy Little Thing,” all of which had already been accounted for in the film.
By this point in the movie, I was exasperated. It was one thing that the film’s producers had played so loose with the facts, but it was made worse that Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor were listed as “executive music producers,” which meant that they had obviously co-signed to the movie’s loose portrayal of Queen’s song chronology.
It was enough to make the most diehard Queen fans cringe in their seats.
Luckily, the film’s bright spots overshadowed the historical flaws, and if you could look past those, the film was actually pretty good.
The best scenes included the movie’s depiction of the creative process behind the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the recording studio, and the ensuing argument between the band and its reluctant EMI label boss, “Ray Foster” (played by the remarkably made-up Mike Myers), about whether “Rhapsody” or “You’re My Best Friend” would be released as the first single from A Night At The Opera. (Note: the real-life EMI exec who “didn’t believe in” “Rhapsody” was named Roy Featherstone).
Fortunately for us, in reality, both songs were ultimately issued as singles – although the depiction of the dispute over the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the reason the band left EMI for Elektra was also fake news. The band had released their albums in the U.S. on Elektra for years before A Night At The Opera came out.
Another of the film’s better moments was the 1982 press conference featuring Mercury and his band mates being drilled by a relentless press corps. The media’s incessant questioning of the flamboyant lead singer about the salacious details of his personal life – and his witty, and at times biting retorts – were fabulously delivered by the actors involved.
The love story between Mercury and his girlfriend Mary, as well as his strained relationship with his father Bomi (Ace Bhatti) were also well-played, even if the details of either could be disputed by Mercury’s survivors, as critics have readily picked apart.
That was more than could be said about most of the exchanges between Mercury and his Queen band mates (although they did provide some of the movie’s best comedic moments).
As was probably the case in life, all three of them – Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) – played bit roles to Malek’s Mercury, which was probably right except that none of the three characters were given any real depth for having played such a major part in Queen’s success and the creative process behind some of the greatest recordings of all time.
And it was those records that were the film’s true saving grace (no offense to Malek, who, as was already stated, was excellent). Thankfully, Queen’s remaining members May and Taylor – along with the film’s other producers – maintained the integrity of that music, electing to use master tapes of original multi-tracked recordings, and not have actors recreate the songs themselves for the soundtrack.
From the beginning up to the film’s climax (and best moment) – the amazing depiction of the band’s 1985 Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium – Queen’s music (enhanced by some great lip syncing by Malek) was the real star.
Unfortunately, the Live Aid event was at the center of the most egregious altering of facts in the entire film. Mercury had never actually left the band, as the movie suggests, and his diagnosis with AIDS came after, not before, Live Aid (reportedly, he was told two years later in 1987, four years before he went public with the disease and died in 1991).
But one has to ignore reality when it comes to most movies, even nonfiction ones that are purportedly based on real-life events.
Fortunately in this case, when there’s great music to fall back on and a public who are less interested in the facts and more into what made Mercury and Queen tick, the movie wins in the court of public opinion.
Ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody gives a fantastic sensory experience and doubles as a commemoration of the late Mercury and an excuse for fans to pour through Queen’s incredible catalogue of pop/rock anthems – even if diehard fans know those anthems weren’t presented in the right order, historically.
Bottom line: If you can look past the revised history and just enjoy the story, Bohemian Rhapsody is a thoroughly entertaining movie that you should not miss.