Previously best known for Mr. Robot, Rami Malek transformed himself into one of the greatest rock singers ever in the 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. But the star had more than a little help when it came to replicating the late, great Freddie Mercury’s voice. So here’s a look at why Malek’s Academy Award-winning performance was very much a team effort.
It’s fair to say that Bohemian Rhapsody had a troubled shoot. The biopic of legendary British rockers Queen was announced way back in 2010 and was initially poised to star Sacha Baron Cohen as the iconic singer. However, the man behind Ali G, Borat and several other crazy characters dropped out of the movie shortly before production was due to begin in 2013 amid disagreements over the film’s creative direction.
And Baron Cohen wasn’t the only major player to jump ship early on. His mooted replacement Ben Whishaw also decided to pass on the role over concerns about the movie’s script and development. And first-choice director Dexter Fletcher left the film, too, after reportedly falling out with one of the producers.
The film finally started to move forward when Hollywood director Bryan Singer (X-Men) and Oscar-nominated scriptwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) came on board. Shortly afterwards, producers finally found their permanent leading man in the shape of Rami Malek. But just when things appeared to be taking shape, another major behind the scenes reshuffle upset proceedings.
That’s because in late 2017 the shooting of the film had to be suspended when Singer went AWOL. Although the director initially claimed a private family matter had been to blame, reports later surfaced that there had been considerable friction between him and Malek. In the end, Singer was given his marching orders and original director Fletcher returned to the fold.
Thankfully, though, all the behind the scenes drama proved to be worth it. Indeed, following its world premiere at London’s SSE Arena in October 2018, the film went on to become nothing short of a box office phenomenon. By March 2019, its worldwide total stood at a colossal $876 million, overtaking the previous biggest-grossing music biopic, Straight Outta Compton ($202 million), with ease.
However, the initial critical response was fairly muted. And Bohemian Rhapsody‘s Rotten Tomatoes rating still stands at a relatively average 61 percent. Time magazine described it as “a bit of a mess,” while IndieWire claimed the film was “as trite and textbook as it gets.” And The Spectator denounced it as “a succession of pre-digested clichés.”
One of the strongest criticisms about the movie was that it airbrushed Mercury’s homosexuality. Indeed, when it came to his romantic history, Bohemian Rhapsody focused far more on his relationship with longtime friend and ex-lover Mary Austin than all of his boyfriends put together. In addition, the movie was also accused of being selective when it came to facts about the band.
Nonetheless, the biopic still ended up becoming a major contender on the 2019 awards circuit. It picked up Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing gongs at the Academy Awards, for example. And it also won Best Motion Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes and Best Sound at the BAFTAs. But it was Rami Malek’s sterling lead performance that earned the majority of the film’s accolades.
Indeed, even in the most scathing of reviews, Malek was still recognized for his bravura portrayal of Mercury. Empire magazine, for example, wrote, “If the script hits a lot of bum notes, Malek is always perfectly in key.” Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers wrote that Malek “digs so deep into the role that we can’t believe we’re not watching the real thing.” And the Evening Standard‘s Craig McLean claimed that the actor “oozed pure Mercury.”
Malek subsequently became an awards favorite, picking up Best Actor gongs at both the Golden Globes and BAFTAs. He then beat fellow nominees Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe and Viggo Mortensen to the Best Actor gong. This made Malek first ever recipient of the award to be of Egyptian descent.
Malek told Rolling Stone that he’d initially had doubts about taking on such a massive role. “I thought someone was playing a joke on me,” he said. “But when I spoke to Graham, I got the sense this could actually be real. That was flooring. I felt massive excitement… followed by the extreme, daunting weight of the thing. It felt like something that could go away in a heartbeat.”
To make things even more daunting, Malek was also forced to watch his taped audition with none other than two members of Queen. Indeed, appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the actor revealed that Roger Taylor and Brian May hadn’t seen the footage when he first met them. And in the end, the trio ended up viewing the tape together in Taylor’s home.
But Malek also used this slightly awkward encounter as an opportunity to gain valuable advice about portraying such a much-loved real-life figure. Speaking to Rolling Stone in July 2018, he said, “They [May and Taylor] told me he was the peacemaker. You could tell there was a unique bond between them that will exist throughout time in their music. It was a beautiful thing to get it from them in person and see how much they cared for him.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1981, Malek graduated from Indiana’s University of Evansville with a degree in theater. He first caught the public’s attention in The War at Home, a situation comedy that aired on Fox in the mid-’00s. Malek then landed supporting roles in HBO’s World War Two drama The Pacific and the family-friendly Night at the Museum franchise.
But Malek’s true big break arrived when he was cast as leading man Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot. The star garnered huge critical acclaim for his turn as a socially anxious hacker in the USA Network drama, winning an Outstanding Lead Actor Primetime Emmy in the process. And during this period, he also graced the big screen in Buster’s Mal Heart and Papillon.
However, it was Bohemian Rhapsody that made Malek a household name. And he certainly put in the effort. After relocating to London, he worked with both a movement and dialect tutor to help nail his impersonation of the Queen frontman. In fact, he watched four hours of Mercury footage daily, and by the end of his preparations he’d viewed the band’s show-stopping Live Aid set a staggering 1,500 times.
Malek also studied clips of Liza Minnelli on stage as part of his research. The daughter of screen legend Judy Garland had been one of Mercury’s major influences as a performer. “It was almost more useful at times to watch Liza than it was to watch Freddie himself,” Malek told The New York Times in September 2018. “You found the inspiration and birth of those movements.”
Moreover, to get the look just right, Malek also had to practice talking with the prosthetic teeth used to replicate the Queen frontman’s famous overbite. Mercury himself was of course extremely self-conscious of this particular feature. Speaking to Rolling Stone about the man he was portraying, Malek commented, “He had a real insecurity about that. If you watch an interview with him, you see how often he’s trying to cover up his teeth with his lips or his hand.”
The sheer amount of training Malek had to undergo for the film often left him feeling overwhelmed, in fact. “I had to re-create things he did on the fly onstage,” Malek said in a November 2018 interview for the Academy Awards’ YouTube channel. “There were many days I said to myself, ‘This is a lost cause.’” However, Malek’s dedication and determination to do justice to the rock icon ultimately reaped great rewards.
One of the biggest fans of Malek’s performance was a man who knew Freddie Mercury better than most: Brian May. The Queen guitarist once revealed that the actor was so convincing as his former bandmate that he often forgot who was behind the prosthetic teeth. May told Arab News, “I love the way that Rami has captured not only Freddie’s great power and ebullience, but also his sensitive, vulnerable side, of which there was a lot.”
Malek’s performance was all the more impressive considering the fact that he knew very little about Mercury or Queen before signing up for the project. However, having stepped inside the frontman’s shoes for such a long time, he eventually ended up a massive fan of the band. “I see Freddie as the best performer of all time,” he told Rolling Stone. “I never ceased to be astonished by this man.”
As impressive as Malek’s movement, accent and general demeanor were, though, it was his vocal similarity to Mercury that wowed audiences the most. For the Queen frontman is renowned for possessing one of the most technically gifted singing voices in pop history. And in 2016 this was even confirmed as a scientific fact.
Indeed, in a report titled Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology, a bunch of European researchers concluded that Mercury almost certainly adopted a vocal approach known as subharmonics. Typically associated with Tuvan throat singers, this rare style of singing involves a part of our vocal cords that the vast majority of humans never use. And that’s not all these experts discovered.
The research team also found that the Queen frontman’s vocal cords moved a lot more quickly than your everyday singer’s. Indeed, Mercury possessed a 7.04 Hz vibrato, in contrast to the norm, which moves between 5.4 and 6.9 Hz. This all means that, essentially, he surpassed even the legendary tenor Pavarotti in his vocal abilities.
And although the research group couldn’t find any evidence that Mercury had a four-octave voice, they did discover that he wasn’t a tenor as was widely assumed. Instead, it was far more probable that the rock icon was a baritone. Mercury allegedly once rejected the opportunity to perform an opera song, in fact, over concerns that Queen’s audience would be left confused by his baritone vocal.
With such a technically complex voice to impersonate, many Bohemian Rhapsody viewers were left feeling skeptical about Malek’s actual involvement in the film’s performance scenes. Was it all the actor’s own work, or was he simply miming along to the real thing? Well, the truth sits somewhere in the middle.
Indeed, Malek’s voice can be heard in the renditions of Queen classics such as “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You” and, of course, the title track. But it’s also merged with the voices of both the real Freddie Mercury and Marc Martel. The latter is a Canadian singer who won a competition to front tribute act The Queen Extravaganza on tour.
Bohemian Rhapsody producer Graham King was particularly impressed by how much Martel, who has also performed in another tribute act, Ultimate Queen Celebration, resembled Mercury vocally. In an interview with Rolling Stone, King said of Martel, “Literally, you could close your eyes and it’s Freddie. And that’s a very tough thing to do.”
Malek told Metro US in a 2018 interview that he believes this was the best approach when it came to tackling Mercury’s vocals. “It is an amalgamation of a few voices,” Malek explained. “But predominantly, it is my hope and the hope of everyone that we will hear as much Freddie as possible. I think that is the goal for all of us.”
Malek’s voice may not always have been the most prominent in the mix, but he still had to deliver a full-throttle performance each time the cameras rolled. So although the star stated that “no one wants to hear me sing” during a chat with The New York Times, the Bohemian Rhapsody cast and crew did get to enjoy the pleasure for each concert scene in the movie.
Malek explained the process further while talking to NPR in January 2019. “I went out every day and sang at the top of my lungs, because that’s the only way to match what he’s doing,” Malek said. “He’s giving everything 110 percent always. And in order to sync it up properly, they used bits of my voice in the beginning. It will lead in with my voice, and then pick up for the majority using Freddie Mercury’s voice.”
Nonetheless, Malek was under no illusions about his vocal limitations. “What I quickly realized was no one can sing like Freddie Mercury, and nor can I,” he admitted. “It’s very difficult to get my voice up to those high notes. At some point, my voice breaks, and it breaks pretty quickly when I’m trying to ascend what Freddie Mercury can do.”
There are a few occasions, however, where Malek’s vocals are featured more prominently. For example, when Mercury is seen writing the title track while sat at the piano, the voice belongs solely to the Oscar winner. But Malek was quick to point out that this was very much a rarity.
Referring to the amalgamation of various voices, Malek told NPR, “It feels so seamless to me. And that’s, I think, one of the greatest aspects of this film is. Even I watch it and I cannot tell. Now, I just want to reiterate that the majority of this – I mean, so much of it – is Freddie’s voice. And I’d never want to ever step in and pretend that I lent myself to so much of this.”
Despite having to showcase his vocals in front of his fellow cast and crew members throughout the film’s shoot, Malek admits he still doesn’t feel particularly comfortable singing in front of an audience. He is more at ease busting a move and tinkling the ivories in public, however. In fact, he now actually enjoys doing the latter.
“I find it meditative,” Malek told NPR. “At one point, I play it upside down in the film. And I thought, ‘Oh, of all the challenges you’re giving me here, here comes page 20.’ The stage directions say: now Freddie plays ‘Bohemian Rhapsody; upside down. And I thought, ‘Come on. Give a guy a break.’”
As well as learning to play the piano from scratch, Malek also had to pick up a guitar for the first time in his life. However, his hours practicing the six-string ultimately proved to be for nothing. That’s because his axe-wielding performance of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was unfortunately cut from the final Bohemian Rhapsody edit.
But overall, Malek is extremely grateful for the opportunity he had to develop his musical skills. “It was like going to a conservatory of music every day,” he explained to NPR. “One hour, two hours spent singing, two hours of piano, four hours in movement and choreography. It was fascinating. It felt like going back to school.”