Preparing to play one of the most enduring rock bands of all time requires voice and dialect coaches, music rehearsals, and countless hours of studying archival performances to make sure everything is right.
Rami Malek, who plays late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, had to learn the piano for the first time in his life, apply prosthetic teeth, mimic an iconic falsetto voice, and capture a distinctly flamboyant stage presence.
Yet he found just as much value in studying the quieter moments behind the scenes. He watched footage of Mercury and guitarist Brian May arguing over the set list for the American tour for the News of the World album in 1977. Brian suggested they play “We Will Rock You,” which was on that album, to close each show.
“Freddie comes in and says, ‘There’s no point in playing ‘We Will Rock You’ at the end, when we’ve already been rocking them for an hour and a half.’ You laugh at that, but you see the dynamics behind the scenes,” Malek said during a recent stop in Dallas. “They’re always trying to collaborate and make the best show possible.”
The film traces the band’s founding in England during the early 1970s, and subsequent rise to popularity while discovering its unique sound. Mercury’s vocal range and showmanship were supported by May (Gwilym Lee), bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy).
It focuses mainly on Mercury, whose upbringing in a working-class family of Parsi heritage clashed with his desire for superstardom. However, fame and fortune brought challenges in his personal life, including revelations of his bisexuality that caused him to leave his longtime girlfriend (Lucy Boynton) for a male hairdresser (Aaron McCusker). As his health deteriorated, Mercury continued to record and perform before dying of complications from AIDS in 1991, at age 45.
Malek (Papillon) tried to embrace the challenges of the role, and the inevitable scrutiny that would come with it.
“It’s one of the most uniquely magnificent voices the world has ever known. So obviously that was an obstacle,” Malek said. “It takes quite a bit of confidence to play him, to walk out there and strut and feel quite as ostentatious and liberated and powerful, and have command of an audience the way he did. When you have to add on singing at the top of your lungs, it seems like an insurmountable feat.”
Malek performed Mercury’s lyrics to a backing track during production, although many songs in the film feature singing directly from the source.
“Freddie’s voice is in every possible nook and cranny in this film,” Malek said. “When you hear it and you think it’s Freddie, it’s probably Freddie.”
May and Taylor, who remain part of the band, were instrumental in developing the film and acted as consultants. Deacon left the band in 1997 and distanced himself from future projects, but Mazzello still found a wealth of material online.
“He just wants to live a private life, and he’s earned it. But even in that, I can take something and incorporate it into the character. It says something about how he felt about Freddie and how he felt about the band,” Mazzello said. “You start putting all these things together and figure out a way to capture this guy’s essence, while at the same time filling in the gaps in the private moments you don’t get to see.”
Authenticity was critical to the entire cast. Mazzello said that outside of the individual characters, capturing the chemistry between band members was much easier during the extensive rehearsal process. He hopes that’s reflected on screen.
“We didn’t use any hand doubles. That was a point of pride for us to make sure that we knew our instruments well enough and practiced hard enough that we’d be able to accomplish that,” he said. “We got along so well. When we started doing these band rehearsals, on Day 1 you knew there was something there. We all clicked. We were having fun from the first moment.”