‘Bohemian Rhapsody’: Is the New Queen Movie Accurate?
The following post contains SPOILERS for Bohemian Rhapsody, as well as the lyrics to the song “Bicycle Race.”
After years of bitter fighting, Freddie Mercury reconciles with the rest of the rock band Queen. They agree to reunite under a new, fairer agreement — now the band will split all royalties four ways — and they will perform at Live Aid, the massive worldwide concert event being staged to raise money for those affected by African famine. But this is not an entirely happy reunion; Mercury has just learned he has HIV. His voice is shot. He confides in his bandmates, who pledge their total support. Still, the rehearsals for Live Aid are rough and sloppy. Will Queen be ready in time to rock Wembley Stadium?
Of course they will. Mercury’s voice recovers and Queen delivers a performance for the ages — widely regarded as the highlight of the Live Aid event, and one of the greatest single rock concerts in history. It’s a real-life ending a Hollywood screenwriter could only dream of. And I mean that literally — because the version of the end of Mercury’s life depicted in Bohemian Rhapsody, the new film about Mercury and Queen, strays pretty far from the historical record.
For one thing, Live Aid wasn’t really the end of Mercury’s life. Live Aid took place on July 13, 1985. Mercury passed away in November of 1991. In Bohemian Rhapsody, Mercury (Rami Malek) grows increasingly estranged from his bandmates because of his hard-partying lifestyle and the machinations of his manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Mercury discovers Prenter has been lying to him (including about an offer to rejoin Queen at Live Aid) and fires him. Soon after, Mercury learns he has AIDS. He apologizes to Queen and rejoins the band, then reveals his diagnosis during the rehearsals for Live Aid.
The heavy implication is that Mercury is already extremely ill when Queen plays Live Aid, and that he rises to the occasion one last time to rock the house. There are repeated cutaways to the other members of the band, marveling at his performance, as if to suggest “Wow, how is he doing this?” When the band finishes their set, they walk off-stage in slow-motion and a series of title cards plays, indicating when Mercury died and what Queen did to honor his death — again implying that Queen and Mercury’s career essentially ended on the stage at Live Aid.
According to a lengthy Rolling Stone profile of Queen from 2014, very little of that is accurate. In fact, Mercury didn’t even test positive for AIDS for two more years. (Rolling Stone’s piece specifies that Mercury tested negative for AIDS in “late 1985,” which would have been months after the band played Live Aid.) And while Live Aid was undeniably one of Queen’s late-career highlights, the band still toured through 1985 and 1986 prior to Mercury’s actual AIDS diagnosis in 1987. Even after that, Queen continued recording albums — like The Miracle in 1989, and Innuendo in 1991.
Bohemian Rhapsody contains numerous other fictitious incidents. Ultimate Classic Rock points out while the film depicts Freddie meeting the other members for the first time after a gig with their previous band, in reality Mercury not only knew the other members of Queen — they had all previously shared an apartment together! Queen recorded “We Will Rock You” in 1977, well before it appears to occur in the movie’s timeline. And Ray Foster (Mike Myers), the record executive who insists that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a terrible idea for a song, appears to be a fabricated individual, loosely based on several other music industry figures.
In the grand scope of things, these are minor changes. Every biopic does this to some extent. Still, the more drastic deviations from history that occur in Bohemian Rhapsody‘s final scenes made me uneasy. They go a lot further than condensing events to make a plot flow more smoothly; they essentially manipulate a real tragedy so it can be used to make a rock musical a little more suspenseful.
My discomfort with director Bryan Singer and writers Peter Morgan and Anthony McCarten’s decision to give Freddie Mercury AIDS years before he actually became ill dovetails with the general tenor of the second half of Bohemian Rhapsody, which is oddly cruel towards the Queen frontman, who is presented as the only reason Queen ever fought or had trouble in the recording studio.
In the film, the other members of Queen (who, it must be noted, are still alive and had some amount of say over the content of this movie) are depicted as wholesome family men, who disapprove of Mercury’s extravagant parties and substance abuse. They’re always on time to recording sessions; Freddie always shows up late. In the film, he essentially breaks up the band when he demands time off to make a solo album. Bohemian Rhapsody’s Queen is outraged by the request. In fact, Queen drummer Roger Taylor had already released two albums — Fun in Space and Strange Frontier — before Mercury released his first solo record, Mr. Bad Guy.
All of these scenes paint Freddie Mercury as the villain of the Queen story, as well as its hero. And true, he earns a “redemption” of sorts at Live Aid. But the way Bohemian Rhapsody reframes and reorders events, the suggestion you’re left with is that redemption came at some life-ending cost — which flat-out isn’t true.
Again, there’s no rule that requires a biographical film be a 1:1 recreation of actual historical events — and even if such a thing was possible, no two accounts of history are exactly the same. Perhaps in the surviving members of Queen’s eyes, Bohemian Rhapsody is how these events transpired. And the Live Aid concert in the film is undeniably thrilling; it’s well choreographed and filmed, and the intensity of the sound is as close to a real rock concert as I’ve ever experienced in a movie theater. And then the movie ends, and you start to read about the real Freddie Mercury, and you suddenly don’t feel great about what you just watched.