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Under Pressure: The Freddie Mercury Biopic and the Importance of Casting

Casting choices can make or break a movie. What could we expect from Bohemian Rhapsody?
Mr Robot Season
By  · Published on August 25th, 2017

Casting choices can make or break a movie. What could we expect from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?

Freddie Mercury once sang, “Who wants to live forever?” — probably because he wasn’t aware of the kind of immortality that his work would provide him even decades after his death. But a good example of the persistence of his legacy is the upcoming Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Nearly eight years after the project started, Mercury’s bandmates have finally, officially announced which actors will be playing them on the big screen.

We previously learned that Rami Malek has the lead role as the late singer. Now we’ve got Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse) as drummer Roger Taylor, Gwilym Lee (The Tourist) as guitarist Brian May, and Joe Mazzello (Jurassic Park) as bassist John Deacon. The movie will be helmed by X-Men: Apocalypse director Bryan Singer, and May and Taylor are involved as executive music producers.

Rumors about the biopic started circulating a few years back, and in 2010 Sacha Baron Cohen was chosen to play Mercury for director Dexter Fletcher. However, Cohen pulled out three years later due to disagreements with the band members (Fletcher also exited the following year, citing creative differences). The road has not been smooth, but as Mercury himself said: the show must go on, and Malek became attached to the project in late 2016, then was officially confirmed last month.  

While Baron Cohen was a risky bet for the role and Malek might seem like a more sensible choice, casting such iconic personalities is a delicate business. Biopics typically revolve around historic or public figures who are well-known, and one of their main goals — if not their ultimate objective — is to provide an accurate portrait of these real people. This is a challenge that often puts the skills of actors and actresses to the test. Thus, casting choices can have a major impact on the quality of a biopic.

The challenge goes beyond getting the historical bits right. Oftentimes, factual accuracy falls second to performance, as they do in the movies Sid and Nancy and Lady Sings the Blues: the latter was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actress in a Leading Role (Diana Ross, portraying Billie Holiday) and Best Screenplay Based on Factual Material, despite its multiple imprecisions regarding its subject’s life. In his autobiography, “Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs,’ former Sex Pistol front man John Lydon complained about Alex Cox’s take on Sid Vicious, stating that the film didn’t bear “any sense of reality.” However, he did praise Gary Oldman’s rendition of the proverbial punk: “The chap who played Sid, I thought was quite good.”

The interpretation delivered by the cast can be powerful enough to spare a movie from other flaws, but most of all, it needs to be a faithful representation of the character. The skill to effectively mimic a person and their behaviors — posture, voice, accent, facial expressions, speech patterns, etc. — definitely helps the cause. Chadwick Boseman’s rendition of James Brown in Get On Up and Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, in Walk the Line, are good examples of how technical rigor can add new dimensions to run-of-the-mill biographical takes.

But the kind of performances that truly mark a difference between lukewarm and praiseworthy biopics are the ones that manage to embody the spirit and nuances of the character. Actors like Jamie Foxx have been close to replicate the charisma that distinguished figures like Ray Charles, and new approaches to the genre, such as Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There and Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, wisely combine fragmented narrative devices and unorthodox casting choices — I’m Not There features six different actors playing different facets of Bob Dylan, and Love & Mercy features both John Cusack and Paul Dano as Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson at two different stages of his life — and succeed in presenting complex portrayals of the musical heroes. 

That’s the type of biopic that Bohemian Rhapsody needs to be to do justice to Mercury and Queen. Despite the initial turmoil, things bode well for the film. The band has promised a “staggering” level of detail in the movie, as Queen archivist Greg Brooks has joined the production, and they’re planning a 2018 release date.

Undeterred by the pressure, Malek holds a fair promise as the lead — his work as Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot is a good reference of his ability to play complex characters — and the band seems very pleased with his involvement in the project so far, stating:

“Rami has great presence, and he’s utterly dedicated to the project. He’s completely living and breathing Freddie already, which is wonderful.”

The newcomers could bring along pleasant surprises as well. Both Hardy and Lee have experience in film, theater, and television, and the latter sings and plays the guitar (a good start for the future Brian May). Meanwhile, Mazzello is no stranger to biographical dramas, as he played Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz in The Social Network.

All in all, cast choices can make or break a biopic, or at the very least provide a solid foundation for a faithful portrait, and it looks like Bohemian Rhapsody is betting on talent over resemblance. Hopefully, that gamble pays off.

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