As the Fall Festival train continues (this week in New York, The Hamptons, London etc) and distributors continue to roll out their awards season goodies, 20th Century Fox bypassed the idea of a fest unveiling and presented the first screening of their Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, last night on the Fox lot in L.A. If the idea was to firmly plant Rami Malek among top contenders for the Best Actor Oscar, then it was mission accomplished.
In front of invited members of the Academy, SAG nominating committee, select guilds, and a handful of awards bloggers, Malek proved beyond a doubt he was the right choice to play iconic Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in a performance that just pops off the screen, alternating between high energy and high drama, and brilliantly capturing both the man and the performer in all his complexity and style. Like the Oscar-winning performance of Jamie Foxx in Ray, Malek doesn’t do his own singing (well, maybe a little) but stunningly embodies the actual vocals of Freddie Mercury himself, as well as a hired sound-alike for certain portions of the wide-ranging soundtrack. It is enormously effective and the sound and vocals are thrilling in this film. Formal reviews are embargoed for the November 2nd release so I won’t go into details until that time, but social media reaction and word at the post-screening reception was uniformly positive among those I talked to. After he was introduced at the Q&A following the movie Malek received a well-deserved standing ovation, and talked about the various challenges in channeling the spirit of Mercury, who died of AIDS-related complications in November 1991, just six years after the triumphant Live Aid concert performance of the reunited Queen in Wembley Stadium.
Producer Graham King, an Oscar winner for The Departed, told me he has worked for ten years to bring this film to the screen and shares producing credit with Jim Beach (aka Miami Beach), the man behind the band who controlled the rights to their story. Although the film, with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten and story by him and Peter Morgan, addresses Mercury’s bisexuality in numerous scenes, the emphasis here is more on the music, the band, and its lead singer behind it. In fact, that Live Aid performance is played in the film as a mini-concert just as it was in 1985 when it happened, an interesting gamble that pays off big time.
Bohemian Rhapsody will be selling a lot of soundtracks to a new generation that will discover Queen for the first time through this film. According to King that is the idea — to bring in a younger audience with a movie intentionally aimed at getting a PG-13 rating. When the initial trailer appeared last spring that was some backlash for seeming to ignore the fact that Mercury was a gay icon who had many affairs with men and instead, showed him with a woman. That was rectified in subsequent trailers and the film itself deals with all aspects of Mercury’s sexuality from his early “marriage” to Mary Austin, as well as his relationships with men. King said there were some drafts of the script that went deeper and more darkly into this area, but ultimately the end result is a movie that first and foremost celebrates the creative spirit and the music of Queen and Mercury.
Malek and King were joined at the Q&A and reception by cast members Gwilym Lee and Joseph Mazzello who respectively play Queen bandmates Brian May and John Deacon as well as Lucy Boynton who plays Mary, ex- (common law?) wife of Mercury. Not in attendance was director Bryan Singer who was fired from the film after repeated absences, reportedly for family problems that made him want to shut down the film and replaced by Dexter Fletcher who worked 16 days to complete the shoot and receives an Executive Producer credit. King told me he has spoken several times recently to Singer who shot about 85% of the finished movie and all is good between them. He said Fox asked him at the time what he wanted to do and he replied that he wanted to finish his movie and thus the decision was made to continue without Singer on board. It’s impossible to see the switch in styles and the bottom line is what is up on screen definitely works.
Malek was besieged at the outdoors reception, taking one selfie after another with excited audience members. Though most of the film proceeds in rather standard Hollywood biopic fashion, I told Malek my favorite scene comes later during a contentious press conference that has reporters digging deep into Mercury’s personal life and is shot in such a way that stylistically it almost emulates something out of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Malek lit up about that and said he is very proud of the way that was done as it really gets into Mercury’s state of mind and psyche at the time.
Fox had several of the outrageous costumes on display that Malek wears as Mercury in the movie, and when I pointed to one particularly shimmering and tight silver outfit, he rolled his eyes. “It’s hard enough to get into that, but after shooting in it for a full day just try getting out of it,” he laughed.
As for his on-stage persona Malek said that, among others, Mercury favorite Liza Minnelli was an inspiration for some of the movements. He watched Cabaret as part of the research. Fox can probably count on serious Oscar consideration in crafts categories including Costume Design and Sound which both excel here. At the very least Malek joins a growing number of performances in the Lead Actor race including some yet to be seen such as Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney in Vice, but this one will be hard for Oscar voters to ignore.