Bohemian Rhapsody now rules the roost as the top movie in America, as every true Queen fan could have told you it would. (Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen it.)
And while that’s great for the band’s legacy — proof once again that its music has universal appeal — it also means that a surprising amount of untruths are now enshrined as the biography best known to the moviegoing public.
Before you dismiss that as a necessary evil of storytelling, consider this: When you dig into the band’s actual history, the true version of their tale is, in almost every instance, far more dramatically interesting. Queen was larger than life, and certainly larger than the standard-issue music biopic cliches that populate Bohemian Rhapsody.
Case in point: the band’s origin story.
As It Began
In the movie, a shy young Farrokh Bulsara (calling himself Freddie, but not yet Mercury) introduces himself to Brian May and Roger Taylor, guitarist and drummer of a band called Smile.
Smile’s lead singer Tim Staffell has quit to join another group called Humpy Bong (fact check: true). Brian and Roger are suspicious of this newcomer with the big teeth until he sings a few bars of May and Staffell’s song “Doin’ Alright.”
In real life, however, Freddie and Tim were good friends who went to the same art college. Freddie got to know Brian and Roger through Tim, and started running a flea market stall in Kensington with Roger in 1969.
Their friendship went through a year-long comedy of errors, in which Freddie became lead singer of a Liverpool-based band called Ibex, traipsing up and down England while he and the two other future members of Queen actually moved in together back in London.
Freddie quit Ibex. Tim quit Smile. And still these three lunkheads didn’t figure out for weeks that history wanted them to be in a band together.
Tell me that isn’t a perfect Hollywood meet-cute montage sequence.
The first gig
The movie shows bass player John “Deaky” Deacon joining the lineup immediately; in fact, the band would go through three bass players in quick succession before finding him.
It also features an iconic moment where Freddie gets frustrated and rips off the top half of the mic stand for more on-stage mobility; this did in fact happen, but while he was singing with Ibex.
By the time Queen played its first gig at a half-empty Red Cross benefit in Cornwall in May 1970 (not in Smile’s old London venue, as the movie has it), according to eyewitnesses, Freddie was well on his way to being the confident showman we know and love.
Another sign that Freddie was far more self-assured than the movie suggests: Their first on-stage song was “Stone Cold Crazy,” a fast rock number he’d sung with Ibex already (and which would end up on the Sheer Heart Attack album).
The movie shows Queen opening with “Keep Yourself Alive,” which would become their first single — but in May 1970, Brian May may not have even written the thing yet.
And when they did perform it, Freddie would stay way more true to Brian’s lyrics than the movie suggests.
Into the studio
In one of the more cliched biopic moments of Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen sells its touring van in order to buy studio time to make its first album. In fact, they didn’t need to. A guy named Norman Sheffield, owner of Trident, one of the best recording studios in the UK, offered Queen free studio time and a stipend — in exchange for owning the band’s output.
That turned out to be a deal with the devil. Queen’s second manager, John Reid, came along in 1975 (not immediately, as the movie suggests) and had to spend much of his time extricating the group from its Trident deal. Freddie was so frustrated with Sheffield he wrote not one but two songs denouncing him: “Flick of the Wrist” and “Death on Two Legs.”
Why didn’t that incredible real-life drama make it into the movie? Possibly because Sheffield sued Queen for defamation after he heard a tape of “Death on Two Legs” — recorded in his own studio. Queen settled out of court.
A smaller note on the studio session scene: Bohemian Rhapsody shows the band getting creative while recording the lyrics of “Seven Seas of Rhye.” In fact, only a brief instrumental version made it onto that first self-titled album.
A small point, yes, but not the first or last time the movie plays fast and loose with Queen’s musical chronology.
Fat Bottomed what now?
In the movie, Elton John’s manager John Reid takes over, and immediately sends Queen on a headlining tour of America. In fact, the band had already toured America twice (once nominally opening for a band called Mott the Hoople) before they met Reid.
A more egregious error is that Queen is seen playing “Fat Bottomed Girls” on this 1974 tour. In fact, they wouldn’t write that song until 1978, for the album Jazz.
That matters because Jazz was a distinctly different and more controversial era of Queen music, one where the group was fighting the rising tide of punk with transgressive naughtiness of its own. “Fat Bottomed Girls” was inextricable from the other song on its double-A side, “Bicycle Race.”
To promote them, Queen issued posters of naked women on bikes — which were promptly banned in both the U.S. and the UK. Undeterred, the band had naked women cycle around the stage of Madison Square Garden. Again, this might have made for an interesting movie scene!
When will, when will we rock you?
The less said about Mike Myers’ obviously fake music label executive “Ray Foster,” the better — except to wonder why on earth his bestselling group Queen would have to ask his permission to record an album titled Night at the Opera. EMI’s actual chief Roy Featherstone was a big Queen fan.
And while Featherstone did fret about “Bohemian Rhapsody” being too long and weird for a hit single, so did many people — including Elton John and the band’s own bassist, John Deacon.
Notably, their comments are not among the negative reviews that flash up on screen.
The less said about Mike Myers’ obviously fake music label executive, the better.
Next comes the movie’s weirdest bit of chronology rearrangement. We fast-forward to 1980, possibly to get to the “Freddie has a mustache” phase of Queen as soon as possible, and somehow Brian May hasn’t invented “We Will Rock You” yet.
In reality, the band had been rocking stadiums with it since 1977, having been inspired by Queen fans chanting a football (soccer, for Americans) song at the end of a show in 1976.
Big deal, you might think. But just try to imagine a Beatles movie in which Paul McCartney doesn’t come up with the tune for “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” until after Let It Be. It would make no sense! Fans would be burning multiplexes down! Yet that’s exactly the amount of time-shifting of a defining hit that has happened here.
Given that Bohemian Rhapsody goes out of its way to please fans with deep cuts like “Doin’ Alright” and “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” it’s odd that it should go out of its way to displease them too.
Another small note: Freddie gets dinged in the movie for constantly being late to recording sessions. He sometimes was, but so were the others. Indeed, the acoustic guitar-led hit “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” began life in 1979 as a song the band could record “before Brian gets here.”
On the beach
Bohemian Rhapsody shows Jim “Miami” Beach taking over as Queen’s manager after John Reid commits the unpardonable sin of suggesting that Freddie take a massive payout to abandon the band and record a solo album. Freddie is so incensed he kicks Reid out of his limo.
In fact, Reid was just too busy managing Elton John’s stratospheric career to handle Queen too, and got a nice payout for ending his time with the band early. As for solo albums, I can’t stress this enough: Everyone did them and they weren’t a big deal.
Roger Taylor was the first, releasing Fun in Space in April 1981. Not only were the rest of the band supportive, they even allowed him to release it at the same time as Queen’s Greatest Hits.
When Freddie finally released his solo effort in 1985, Mr. Bad Guy, it was the most successful of them all — and it didn’t even get close to breaking the band up as the movie suggests. In fact, they were just finishing a tour together at the time of its release, promoting their most successful album in years, The Works.
That’s really why Queen knocked it out of the park at Live Aid — they had just been on the road performing all those songs. It had nothing to with the “let’s get the band back together” rehearsal cliche, or with Freddie’s AIDS diagnosis (which in all likelihood didn’t happen until 1987).
Sometimes there’s just no substitute for experience.
Freddie and friends
Much has already been written about the problematic way Bohemian Rhapsody approaches Freddie’s sexuality. Suffice to say the movie presents him as the lonely prisoner of his personal manager Paul Prenter, who leads Freddie into an ever deeper world of drugs and gay sex.
In fact, Freddie had way more agency. He was the one who led the partying, not Prenter. Even Elton John marveled at Freddie’s prodigious energy levels when it came to coke, booze and sex with mostly men but also women. (His beloved Mary Austin was far from the only woman Freddie would sleep with; he also had a serious multi-year open relationship with Austrian actress Barbara Valentin.)
While his bandmates could also party, and even quiet reserved married Brian fell in love with a woman named Peaches after a literal orgy in New Orleans, “Freddie was out there eclipsing the lot of them, hurling caution into the hurricane,” writes Lesley-Ann Jones in Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury.
There are enough glorious, tension-filled true stories in the band’s history for a trilogy of movies.
Indeed, Jones’ book is a litany of fascinating orgies, and is just the thing to read for inspiration if you don’t feel like you’re partying hard enough.
Freddie also had way more close friends. An entire entourage of people not seen in the film clustered around Freddie at all times, led by his ever-loyal personal assistant and stylist Peter Freestone. (Like all those in Freddie’s orbit, Freestone was given a drag name — in his case, Phoebe.) You can get a sense of the size of Freddie’s friend list in the video for his ironic hit single “Living On My Own,” filmed at his 39th birthday party.
Nor did Freddie have to track down his partner Jim Hutton via the phone book in the manner portrayed in the film. They met in 1983 at the Copacabana, a gay club near Freddie’s Kensington home, and kept in touch until they started dating full time in 1985. Hutton was a hairdresser at the Savoy Hotel, not a waiter. Freddie’s chat-up line was “How big’s your dick?” (It is true, however, that Live Aid was Hutton’s first concert.)
Yes, Prenter later betrayed Freddie by outing him in an interview with the British tabloid The Sun (not a TV interview, as in the film). And as Jones writes, there was one time when Prenter was arranging a line of men for Freddie to sleep with, while Freddie had lost interest — but that was because Queen’s impeccably well-mannered frontman “was too polite to say anything.”
Considering the involvement of the real Brian May and Roger Taylor in Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s probably not surprising that the movie shies away from some of the band’s true sour (and most dramatic) moments.
The one stain Queen will never get out is the fact that it performed at Sun City, the Las Vegas-style resort of white apartheid South Africa, for which the band was slapped with a substantial fine from the British Musician’s Union.
But there are enough glorious, tension-filled true stories in the band’s history for a trilogy of movies — such as the time they embarked on the first major tour of South America in rock history, were treated as gods, and may have helped hasten the downfall of the military junta in Argentina. Or the fishbowl nature of Freddie’s existence; the one time he tried to go to the bathroom without a member of his entourage, his cubicle was surrounded by a screaming mob.
Maybe now that Bohemian Rhapsody reigns supreme, we can expect more movies — or a TV series! — that can provide more of Queen’s absolutely true greatest hits.