What Bohemian Rhapsody Gets Right… and Wrong
Is this real life or is it fantasy?
Much of the criticism of Bohemian Rhapsody is that it whitewashes or gets wrong several aspects of the real-life history of beloved rock icon Freddie Mercury. The factual shortcomings can be categorized into three types: the little things and events that got compressed together; the people and events who were written out of the film, which are minor. The major factual errors, which when taken in their entirety and sequence, pretty much take up the last 40 minutes or so of the film leading up to the Live Aid performance.
Here’s an assessment on the film on the basis of its historical accuracy. I’ve tried to list the events in the chronological order in which they appear in the film. Most of the source material for this factcheck is from two Freddie Mercury biographies: Mercury: An Intimate Biography by Lesley-Ann Jones and Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury. (UPDATE: After the initial publication of this article, I saw the 2011 BBC documentary Queen: Days of Our Lives, which is cited extensively in the updated version of this article.)
For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, consider yourselves warned: SPOILERS AHEAD.
Queen’s formative years: The opening scenes of the movie, while mostly accurate, compresses events that took place over the course of four years into the first five or ten minutes. Freddie had been a friend and fan of the band Smile for years and secretly wanted to be their lead singer. The film doesn’t show or mention Ibex, Wreckage, and Sour Milk Sea — the three bands Freddie briefly fronted during a seven-month period before he joined forces with Roger Taylor and Brian May in May of 1970. John Deacon was the last member to join Queen in February of 1971, after brief stints by three other bassists. Also, Freddie’s trademark half-mic stand is thought to have originated from his pre-Queen period in the late 1960s, though the film shows it happening during Queen’s first performance while playing “Keep Yourself Alive.”
Mary Austin: Most people who knew Freddie generally tend to agree she was the love of his life. In a 1985 interview, he said, “All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but it’s simply impossible… The only friend I’ve got is Mary, and I don’t want anybody else. To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage. We believe in each other, that’s enough for me.” He was also quoted as telling her, “If things had been different, you would have been my wife and this (his home) would have been yours anyway.” (The Queen ballad “Love of My Life” is widely assumed to be about her, a live performance of which is briefly shown in the film, although Queen manager John Reid told Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne that Freddie told him at the time it was about David Minns, a gay executive at Elektra Records Freddie had an affair with while he was still living with Mary. )
The film is correct in showing her working at the London fashion boutique Biba at the time they met. Both her parents were deafmutes, as was shown in the movie. Freddie and Mary were a couple for almost six years, an eternity for a young couple in their twenties at the time when marriage was the norm. She found the house where he would spend the last several years of his life, and he bought her an apartment in the building next door.
What the movie gets wrong about her: In the movie, Freddie introduces himself to her. In real life, she first met and briefly dated Brian May, and Freddie eventually asked Brian to introduce him to her. In real life (and not shown in the movie) she is one of the few people Freddie tells about his AIDS diagnosis. She knew about it before his bandmates.
Not mentioned in the closing credits: Freddie was godfather to her first son, and in his will he left her his home and half of his estate. Freddie also gave her instructions of what to do with his remains, under condition of utmost secrecy.
Also worth noting is that several of Freddie’s male and female lovers from over the years (spanning from the late 60’s through the mid-80’s before his relationship with Jim Hutton) are not even mentioned in the script.
Queen’s Bad Deal with Trident:
The film inaccurately portrays the band as having been discovered by Elton John manager John Reid. A major omission of the early Queen history was Norman and Barry Sheffield, two brothers who opened Trident Studios in Soho and also ran a management company.
Norman offered the band studio time during overnight hours to “see what you can do.” The band and Trident eventually negotiated three separate agreements that would cover publishing rights, the record deal, and their management contract. The deal, signed in September 1972, resulted in Trident paying each band member £20 per week, while Trident kept looking for the best recording and distribution deal for the material they were making. Trident got the band deals with EMI in the United Kingdom and Elektra Records in the United States in early 1973.
By the end of summer of 1973, Trident had invested £62,000 in Queen, with little to show for it after their first single “Keep Yourself Alive” failed to make the charts in the United States and the United Kingdom. The band went into the studio to record a second album, which yielded their first hit “Seven Seas of Rhye,” while still living on a salary of £30 per week. In spite of the success of “Seven Seas” and 1974’s “Killer Queen” — their first international hit — the band had no money, and were living on a £60 weekly salary. By this point, the band owed Trident almost £200,000 for their first three albums.
Unhappy with their finances while Trident appeared to be reaping all the benefits of their hard work, Richards and Langthorne wrote that the band “grew increasingly suspicious when Trident bought their second Rolls-Royce for the management.” The disconnect between this and the fact that Trident had refused the newlywed John Deacon a £10,000 loan to make a down payment on a house, in addition to requests for money from Freddie for a grand piano and from Roger for a new car, would doom their professional and financial relationship with Trident. Freddie would have his revenge in writing the song “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…)” (which he once called “the most vicious lyric I ever wrote,”) his musical attack against Norman Sheffield.
At the beginning of 1975, Queen, who were already deeply in debt to begin with, hired a lawyer named Jim Beach to get them out of their contracts with Trident. By August, they reached a deal to split from Trident for £100,000 and one percent of royalties on Queen’s next six albums (for those who are keeping score, this would start with that year’s A Night at the Opera and end with the Flash Gordon soundtrack in 1980.) At this point, the band had hired John Reid as their new manager. Reid paid off the Trident debt by borrowing £100,000 from EMI as an advance against future publishing royalties.
(The BBC documentary Days of Our Lives dates Reid’s tenure as Queen’s manager to 1975–1978. During this short but crucial period, the band recorded its breakout album A Night at the Opera, its follow-up A Day at the Races, and News of the World, which included two of the band’s signature songs “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.”)
Musical Anachronisms: The band is shown performing “Fat Bottomed Girls” before they record A Night at the Opera and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In reality: A Night at the Opera was released in 1975, “Fat Bottomed Girls” appears on the Jazz album, which was released in 1978.
Later in the film, during the montage where Freddie goes to the doctor and is diagnosed with AIDS shortly before Live Aid, “Who Wants to Live Forever?” is playing during the scene. In reality: the song is not about Freddie’s illness. It was written by Brian May for the movie Highlander and released in 1986 on the A Kind of Magic album, which served as the film’s unofficial soundtrack.
The Making of Bohemian Rhapsody: One of the key scenes early in the movie was the making of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Not mentioned was the fact that the band spent three months and an estimated £35,000 making A Night at the Opera, which made it one of the most expensive albums ever made at the time. During this period, Queen spent three weeks working on “Bohemian Rhapsody” alone, most of that time on the opera section in the middle of the song, which includes as many as 200 vocal overdubs. Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker told the BBC the song was recorded in six different studios. It became the most expensive single ever recorded at the time it was released.
Baker (played in the film by Tim Plester) is heard in the control room referring to the song as “Fred’s Thing,” which was the song’s working title at the time because it didn’t have a name yet.
One thing the film does not capture — a logical consequence of leaving the Trident saga out of the script — is the sense of urgency and incredibly high stakes involved as the band went into the studio to record this album. “We were not only poor, but we were in debt,” Brian May told the BBC. “All the sound and lighting companies and people that we worked with hadn’t been paid. So we were at a really crucial point. We might have had to break up if that album hadn’t done well.”
Reaction to Bohemian Rhapsody: The character of studio executive Ray Foster (played by Mike Myers in a brilliant bit of casting. If you don’t get the joke, watch this.) was made up for the film. Foster is loosely based on EMI chief Roy Featherstone, who signed the band to their first record deal in the United Kingdom. The Foster character expressed the real-life widespread sentiment held early on before its release that “Bohemian Rhapsody” would fail as a single because of its six-minute length. John Reid told the BBC that he took the song to Elton John, his other A-list client, to get his feedback: “Are you off your head? You’ll never get that on the radio.” (Bonus trivia: Decades later, Elton would perform “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Queen and Axl Rose at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.)
EMI did try to push for “You’re My Best Friend” as the first single, as shown in the film, only to face united front from the band members who continued to hold out for “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The man who first played the song on radio and made it a hit was a Capitol Radio personality named Kenny Everett who appears in the movie. Everett got a copy of the song from Freddie with specific instructions not to play it. Everett disregarded them and played the song 14 times over the course of a weekend. According to Richards and Langthorne, “Almost immediately, the switchboard at Capitol Radio was inundated with people demanding to know whwre they could get hold of the record while the reception area was besieged by visitors arriving with cash and wanting to buy the record there and then. It was pandemonium. Yet the record hadn’t even been pressed yet, let alone released.”
Because there was no Ray Foster, there was no incident of Freddie throwing a rock through his window. However, John Reid told the BBC about an incident where Freddie did it to him, in an entirely different context: “Shortly after I started to manage them, I had told all the band that one of the ground rules is don’t do any press without clearing it with me, because you open yourself up to all kinds of things. Usually they turn on you.”
“So I went out to dinner with Freddie in the White Elephant in Gurzon Street. Casually in the middle of the dinner, he said, ‘I did an interview with David Wake from The Express today.’”
“I said, ‘I thought I told you no interviews without clearing it with me.’”
“‘Oh well, dear. Never mind.’”
“I said, ‘Well, fuck you. If you don’t work within my rules, you don’t work with me.’ And I got up and left. Then I left him there.”
“I came home, went upstairs, turned on the TV. The next thing I knew, a brick came through the window. I looked outside here, I saw Freddie standing in the street, hands on his hips, ‘Don’t you ever fucking leave me in a restaurant again!’ So I told him, ‘You better come in.’”
Bottom line: Freddie throwing a brick through Ray Foster’s window is based on at least a partial element of truth, even if the character is fictitious.
The firing of Queen manager John Reid: In the movie Reid, played expertly by Aidan Gillen, is fired after a Littlefinger-esque attempt at pitching Freddie the idea of a solo contract during a limo ride. In reality, the split was much more amicable. According to Richards and Langthorne, “Off-stage, they [the band] were taking an increasing interest in the band’s business, and this extended to their management. For a while it had become obvious to them that John Reid was not able to devote the necessary time to manage each of his two stadium acts, Queen and Elton John. Consequently, Queen were galvanized into making the decision to leave John Reid Enterprises.”
Reid’s contract with the band was allowed to expire, and the two parties split on good terms. He is quoted saying, “We made a deal and they paid me a lot of money and I kept my rights. I still get royalties from them, so I kept my commission from the records that were made under my tenure and after that individually, particularly with Freddie, we were able to spend more time together as friends.” This split happened some time in 1977–1978.
UPDATE: Based on the sequencing of events in the movie, Reid’s firing took place sometime in 1979 or 1980, because the next scene is the making of “Another One Bites the Dust,” which was released during that period. The Days of Our Lives documentary dates Reid’s tenure to 1975–1978.)
Freddie’s solo contract: Freddie’s solo contract did not materialize out of the blue without any involvement of the band or its management. In late 1982, Queen became unhappy about their deal with Elektra Records, which represented them in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. This was in the wake of their poorly received Hot Space album, which also wound up being Queen’s final U.S. tour during Freddie’s lifetime. Queen manager Jim Beach eventually negotiated the band out of its Elektra contract at a cost of $1 million to the band, then got the band signed to Capitol Records in the United States. As part of this new deal with Capitol, Beach also got Freddie’s solo deal.
“There was a lot of strain when Freddie did his solo album,” Jim Beach told the BBC. “Mainly because the advance was actually considerably more than the advances for Queen albums.”
For his part, Freddie said, “There is an inward jealousy, and they’re all wondering and all waiting to see if, say, my album is going to do better than the last Queen album, or something like that.”
Sun City Fallout: Not mentioned at all in the film was the fierce public relations backlash Queen experienced in October of 1984 for breaking the United Nations cultural embargo against apartheid-era South Africa for performing a series of shows at Sun City, the luxury casino and golf resort (to be fair, they weren’t the only band to do so). They were subsequently blacklisted by the British Musicians’ Union.
Cross-Dressing Controversy: Their music video for “I Want to Break Free” was meant as a homage or parody of the British soap opera Coronation Street, but the video was taken out of rotation by MTV in the United States. In the film, Freddie complains that he was getting all the blame for it even though it wasn’t his idea. In real life, Freddie was quoted as saying “I was dying to dress up in drag. Doesn’t everybody? It was just one of those things. I’m sure everybody thought it was my idea, bit in fact it wasn’t my idea at all. It came from Roger, and actually the other three ran into their frocks quicker than anything.”
Freddie (and Queen) in Munich: Queen recorded parts of The Game, Hot Space, The Works, and A Kind of Magic, in addition to Freddie recording his first solo album Mr. Bad Guy (released in 1985) at Musicland Studios in Munich over a period of several years from 1979 through the mid-1980s. Brian told the BBC, “We had heard that there was this great studio called Musicland in Munich, and we heard that there is this great engineer called Mack. And we got into this rather kind of indulgent way of just bowling into the studio with no ideas, or very few ideas, and just doing it from scratch.”
The film implies that Queen were on hiatus during this period and reunited for Live Aid, which is not true. Although there were plenty of sex and drugs involved in real life, Freddie was not holed up in Munich on a perpetual sex and drugs bender while trying to write and record his two solo albums, as portrayed in the film. His second solo album Barcelona was recorded as a collaboration with Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballé and was released in 1988, after Freddie had already been diagnosed with AIDS and Queen were on hiatus from touring.
It should also be pointed out that Freddie was not the only member of Queen to do a side project or solo album while the band was active. Brian did Star Fleet Project in 1983, and Roger recorded two solo albums Fun in Space (1981), and Strange Frontier (1984), in addition to fronting a side band called The Cross from 1987–1993.
Freddie Introduces Jim Hutton to His Family: The sad historical fact, according to biographer Lesley-Ann Jones, is that Freddie never came out to his family during his lifetime. In real life, Jim Hutton met Freddie’s family several times, but if anyone came to visit Freddie at his home and asked about Jim, they would be told that he was the gardener and that he lived in another bedroom on the property. Hutton was not offended by the arrangement, saying, “They were lovely people. I understood the reason for the secrecy. They were religious. Zoroastrianism did not allow homosexuality. He had not come out to his family.”
Live Aid Cameos: At the beginning of the movie when the band is walking up to the stage at Wembley, another band can be seen off to the side walking in the opposite direction. Based on how they are dressed, it is highly likely that the band is supposed to be U2, who performed their breakthrough set earlier in the day.
Later on in the film, the band is shown waiting in their trailer before being called to the stage. In the background, you can hear audio of Dire Straits’s live performance of “Sultans of Swing.” In real life, Dire Straits was the band that went on before Queen at Wembley Stadium.
The concert would raise $127 million for famine relief.
Live Aid Shenanigans: Backstage during the Live Aid sequence, a person is shown tampering with the noise level on a soundboard before Queen took the stage. This was Trip Khalaf, the band’s sound engineer. According to Richards and Langthorne, Khalaf “sneakily set the limiters to ensure Queen were louder than anyone else. It was an old trick, but yet another element that set the band apart from the rest that day.”
Paul Prenter’s Betrayal: One of the most negative influences in Freddie’s life was his personal assistant Paul Prenter, played in the movie by Downton Abbey veteran Allen Leech. A Belfast native, he had previously dated John Reid. Prenter’s father asked Reid to get his son out of Northern Ireland because of the ongoing violence from the Troubles. Reid obliged, setting him up with a job in London, and through Reid, he got to know Freddie who eventually hired him. This working relationship would last for almost a decade.
According to Peter Straker, a friend of Freddie’s, “Paul did everything that Freddie desired or wanted in terms of looking after him, and he could be quite a divisive person because he had Freddie’s ear.” Reid described him as “He became a nightmare and he became divisive between Freddie and the band.”
He was fired from the Queen camp in 1985. According to Brian May, “He got a little too big for his boots, I think.” Freddie immediately hired Prenter to work for him directly. A year later, Prenter threw a party at Freddie’s apartment without his permission and trashed the place, leading to his dismissal.
Prenter responded by threatening to “do this and that.” He followed through on that threat by selling Freddie’s privacy and secrets to the British tabloid The Sun for £32,000. On May 4, 1987, the tabloid ran a three-page bombshell on its front page under the headline “AIDS Kills Freddie’s Two Lovers.” Freddie would become a tabloid target for the rest of his life amid questions about his sexuality and lifestyle. Freddie never spoke to Prenter again.
The film is correct that Prenter threatened to retaliate against Freddie for firing him, though it inaccurately portrays his medium of choice as a German television show. Not mentioned in the movie is the fact that Prenter died of AIDS in 1991 a few months before Freddie.
UPDATE: Here is a pretty good writeup of Paul Prenter’s life and relationship with Freddie.
Freddie and AIDS: There is no definitive answer as to when or how Freddie was exposed to HIV, but Richards and Langthorne make the case for a theory that he was initially exposed in 1982, began showing symptoms of the disease in 1985, was already sick by the time of his final tour in 1986. For context, Richards and Langthorne argue that Freddie took at least one or possibly two AIDS tests in 1985 alleging that at least one of them came back positive, and another dozen throughout 1986. He was formally diagnosed with AIDS in April of 1987 after a biopsy performed on a shoulder lesion showed that Freddie had Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of cancer frequently associated with AIDS and HIV.
Jim Beach told the BBC that Freddie told him about his AIDS diagnosis while simultaneously asking him to keep it from the other band members, which put him in a very uncomfortable ethical situation. The conversation Freddie eventually has near the end of the movie informing his band mates that he has AIDS did happen in real life, but not until several years later, presumably in 1988 or 1989. His request that they keep his health condition secret, as well as his desire to continue working and writing and recording as much new music as possible with the limited time he had left is also historically accurate.
Shared Songwriting Credits and Royalties: From the earliest days of the band, the rule was that whoever wrote the lyrics got credit for the song, regardless of contributions from other members to the finished product. The band’s decision to share royalties and songwriting credits equally on future releases was accurate but not within the chronology of the film, which ends with the Live Aid performance in 1985. Queen’s 1986 album A Kind of Magic still credited individual members for their compositions.
The Little Things: There are many little details and scenes which capture Freddie’s personality and lifestyle perfectly, sometimes explicitly, other times implied. Examples include: Freddie calling home while on tour asking to speak to his cats (he actually did this); Freddie’s love of Stolichnaya vodka (several bottles are strategically placed as props throughout the movie); Freddie having a piano set up as a makeshift headboard above his bed; and the legendary debauchery and extravagance of his parties.
The bottom line: For all its flaws, Bohemian Rhapsody gets a surprising amount right, along with the broad gist of the band’s history ranging from its early days all the way up to Live Aid.