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The Historical Inaccuracies In 'Bohemian Rhapsody' Are Signs Of Lazy Filmmaking

Esquire (UK) logo Esquire (UK) 22/02/2019 Tyler Coates
Freddie Mercury holding a microphone: The Queen biopic, which is nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor, is full of historical inaccuracies about Freddie Mercury's life. © 20th Century Fox / Getty Images The Queen biopic, which is nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor, is full of historical inaccuracies about Freddie Mercury's life.

Bohemian Rhapsody is, I'll admit, a special kind of movie. It took a long time to get off the ground, stuck in a state of development hell after its original leading man, Sacha Baron Cohen, ultimately turned down the chance to play the legendary Queen frontman after clashes with the surviving members of Queen. When Baron Cohen left the film in 2016, it seemed the project was in limbo for good-that is until Mr. Robot became a hit and its star, Rami Malek, a potential leading man.

And while the shoot was rocky and dogged with controversy thanks to director Bryan Singer's on-set feuds with his actors and his ultimate dismissal from the project (Dexter Fletcher, who also directed the upcoming Elton John biopic Rocketman, stepped in to finish the film), the film was an ultimate hit with audiences, earning over $850 million worldwide. Fans were eager for a Queen movie, it seems, although critics were not; it currently holds a 61 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That makes it the lowest-rated Best Picture nominee of 2019 (it also received Oscar nominations for Best Actor, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing).

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One of the major issues with the film itself-beyond its clunky editing, those infamously unsettling fake teeth-is the script's extremely fast and loose retelling of Mercury's life story. One can expect a Hollywood film to fiddle with historical facts in an effort to tell a streamlined narrative in the span of two hours. (As screenwriter Anthony McCarten said, "[W]e’re making a movie here, not a documentary.") But many critics have called into question the way Bohemian Rhapsody dramatised the real events of its story-and, in many cases throughout the film, completely made things up entirely to fit the story that Queen's Brian May and Roger Taylor (who served as "executive music producers") wanted to tell.

The film kickstarts with Queen's origin story, depicting the somewhat shy Freddie Mercury attending a concert in London where he sees a band called Smile performing "Doin' Alright," a song that Queen would later record as their own. When Smile's lead singer Tim Staffell quits the band in a huff, Mercury swoops in and impresses the remaining members (May and Taylor) with his a cappella version rendition of the song. As Staffell told Esquire, the film made his departure from Smile much more dramatic; not only did he leave the band amicably, but he also knew Mercury from the London arts and music scenes. (He also recorded his own vocals on the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack, singing his version of "Doin' Alright" in the film's early scene.

The way Bohemian Rhapsody depicts Queen's origins is forgivable dramatic license. So, too, is the creation of the character of Ray Foster, played by Mike Myers. Mercury and Co. pitch the outlandish and operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody" to a fictional record executive inspired by EMI's Ray Featherstone, who was dubious of the potential single's long running time. He serves as a potential villain, a member of the rock establishment that Queen was trying to fight against. (And it was a chance for Mike Myers to have a cameo in the film, since Wayne's World offered an iconic homage to the Queen track in the early '90s.)

a couple of people posing for the camera: Fact-Checking 'Bohemian Rhapsody' © 20th Century Fox Fact-Checking 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

While those details are certainly minor, and simply serve as narrative beats that keep the story moving, they pale in comparison with the outright historical fudging the film does to create dramatic tension between Mercury and his bandmates. As Mercury's star rises, so does his ego; thanks to a conniving manager who also serves as his romantic partner (more on that in a moment), Mercury effectively leaves the band in the film to record his solo album Mr. Bad Guy in 1985. But the truth is that Mercury's album came after Taylor's two solo albums (1981's Fun in Space and 1984's Strange Frontier) and May's solo effort (1983's Star Fleet Project).

In fact, the film essentially claims that Mercury split from the band entirely and had to come crawling back for forgiveness before they reunited for their legendary performance at Live Aid in 1985-a chain of events that didn't happen, as Queen released The Works in 1984 and had finished a world tour supporting that album mere months before the Live Aid performance.

© getty

While the film paints Mercury's relationships with his bandmates as fraught with drama, it's the way the Bohemian Rhapsody dramatises his personal life that has earned the loudest critical backlash. In the movie, Mercury meets his long-term girlfriend Mary Austin just moments before he meets May and Taylor (another piece of fiction; they didn't meet until he had joined Queen officially). The pair did break up when Mercury began to experiment with his sexuality, and they remained close throughout his life.

But the way the film depicts his relationship with men is a little concerning. In real life, Mercury had a close friendship with Kenny Everett, a London radio DJ who played "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the air and helped propel it to radio success. He's the basis for the film character Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), Mercury's personal manager and sexual partner who drives a wedge between the singer and his bandmates and-as the film suggests-leads him down a dark path full of sex and drugs. The film also supplies a silly meet-cute between Mercury and Jim Hutton, an Irish-born hairdresser who lived with Mercury during the last six years of his life. In the movie, Hutton is a waiter who Mercury hits on at a party and then returns to days before his "comeback" performance at Live Aid (in one of the film's most ridiculous moments, Mercury tracks Hutton down years after they meet, picks him up at his house, and then takes him to meet his conservative parents-all within a matter of hours).

Mercury's HIV diagnosis is, naturally, used for dramatic effect, and it's probably the more glaring-and thus, more egregious-inaccuracy in the film. Bohemian Rhapsody depicts a dramatic scene in which Mercury discovers his HIV status, complete with another young man affected by the illness who finds comfort and empowerment when he recognises the singer at the hospital. The truth is more complicated: According to Rolling Stone, Mercury likely received his HIV diagnosis in 1986 or 1987-years before his death from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991, which is when he publicly disclosed his illness. In the movie, however, Mercury immediately tells his bandmates as they prepare for Live Aid, and the cloying scene ends with a group hug as his colleagues accept him despite his diagnosis.

a person talking on a cell phone: Fact-Checking 'Bohemian Rhapsody' © 20th Century Fox Fact-Checking 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

Everything about Bohemian Rhapsody screams of a group project, a film with a million different hands (and-this we know to be true-two directors). It is not one person's vision, but rather many people's vision of one person: Freddie Mercury, who had no say in the matter. I didn't know many details of Mercury (or the band's) personal life behind the scenes, and I'd assume most of the millions of people who saw the film didn't, either. I had to rely on Bohemian Rhapsody to tell me, and the story it told me was so formulaic, so by-the-books biopic, that I could see the events of the film coming from a mile away-even though most of those events were completely made up.

It makes me wonder, why not bother telling the events of the Mercury's life as they happened? Why squeeze it all together, shift moments around so egregiously, because they make for good drama? The movie keeps telling me how popular Queen was, how devoted their fans were-and still are, if the box office numbers add anything to the story of Mercury's legacy. So why then would this film settle to be so mediocre, so unoriginal, when at its centre is a cultural figure who was so beloved precisely because he broke free of the formulas the cultural gatekeepers tried to enforce upon him?

Related: 50 greatest movies of all time according to the stats [Digital Spy]

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