Producer Graham King was persuaded to buy the rights to the story of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen by award-winning writer Peter Morgan. I was shooting the film Hugo, and Peter called me and asked me if I liked the band Queen,’ he recalls. “I said, yes, I love Queen! And he told me he was writing this script on spec and that no one had the rights to their story and that I should think about getting involved.”
The film traces the meteoric rise of the band through their iconic songs and revolutionary sound. They reach unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie, surrounded by darker influences, shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career. Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with his bandmates just in time for Live Aid. While bravely facing a recent AIDS diagnosis, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music. Queen cements a legacy that continues to inspire outsiders, dreamers and music lovers to this day
King knew something about Freddie’s life from having grown up in London in the 1970s and 1980s and after a long phone conversation with Jim Beach, Queen‘s lawyer, King was introduced to Queen founders, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, and the deal was sealed.
As King expected, May and Taylor were apprehensive at first about the project, but King‘s track record as the man who produced award-winning films about such notable figures as Howard Hughes with The Aviator and Muhammad Ali with Ali, as well as former CIA officer Tony Mendez with Argo, went a good way to assuage their anxieties.
Oscar-winning producer Graham King has worked behind the scenes with the industry’s foremost creative talents in both major motion pictures and independent features. Over the last 30 years, King has produced or executive produced more than 45 films, grossing over $1.2 billion at the domestic box office and over $2.8 billion worldwide. Also heralded by critics and film groups, his films have been nominated for 61 Academy Awards®, 38 Golden Globe Awards, and 52 British Academy Film (BAFTA) Awards. His GK Films banner has a three-year, first look, nonexclusive deal with Paramount Pictures, under which King will develop and produce films through his shingle.
“I come from an area of big Hollywood films, and I thought the story deserved to be told on that level,” says King.
“The film is a celebration of the music as well as carrying on the legacy of Queen and Freddie and showing a whole new generation who Freddie was–his background in Zanzibar, his coming to London as an immigrant, the prejudice he dealt with growing up, his shyness and insecurities about his looks, how he battled on so many different fronts, his brilliance as a songwriter and musician, how he found another family in the band, his reinvention as a larger-than-life performer, while always remaining someone everyone loved who could get away with some very outrageous behavior–all framed by the creation of a sound that was innovative and groundbreaking for the time. The period from 1970 to1985 felt like the most important part of Freddie’s and the band’s life story, and it ends with the triumph of Live Aid.”
Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour, The Theory of Everything) wrote the screenplay, from a story by McCarten and Peter Morgan (The Crown, The Queen). The film is produced by Graham King (The Departed, The Aviator) and Jim Beach (The Krays, The Hotel New Hampshire) and directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns).
Peter Morgan (Story), CBE, is one Britain’s most celebrated and influential screenwriters. He is the creator behind the highly acclaimed and Golden Globe®-winning Netflix series The Crown, chronicling the inside story of Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street. The first two series starred Golden Globe® and SAG winner Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, who’s ascension to the British throne shook the British Monarchy after the death of her father. Winning awards on both sides of the Atlantic, the series has been praised as raising the bar in cinematic television. Morgan has been recognized multiple times by the American and British television academies for his writing, receiving multiple BAFTA® and Emmy® nominations for the series.
The Crown was inspired by Morgan’s Tony® award-winning play The Audience, about the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and her Prime Ministers, as well as the Oscar®-winning film The Queen, both starring Helen Mirren. The Queen garnered Morgan an Oscar® and BAFTA® nomination for Best Screenplay.
Morgan’s illustrious career also includes the award-winning and Tony-nominated play Frost/Nixon, which received critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic before being adapted in to a multi Academy Award®-nominated film of the same name. The film garnered five Oscar® award nominations, including Best Screenplay. Morgan’s many other film credits include the award-winning The Last King of Scotland, The Damned United and Rush, directed by Ron Howard. His extensive television credits include The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries, the critically acclaimed The Deal – the first part of Morgan’s Tony Blair Trilogy (BAFTA® Award for Best Drama) – The Special Relationship and Longford.
In 2017, Morgan was awarded the BFI Fellowship, the institute’s highest honor and the RTS recognized The Crown with a special award in 2018 for its Contribution to British Television.
Anthony Mccarten (Screenplay, Story) is a three-time Academy AwardÒ-nominated and double BAFTAÒ-winning screenwriter and film producer of the films The Theory of Everything (for which Eddie Redmayne won a Best Actor OscarÒ) and Darkest Hour (for which Gary Oldman won the same award), as well as a #1 Sunday Times bestselling author. His novels and nonfiction have been translated into 14 languages. He received early international success with his play “Ladies Night.” Translated into 12 languages, it continues to play worldwide. In 2001, it won France’s premiere theater award for comedy, the Molière Prize. Born in New Zealand, he divides his time between London and Los Angeles. In 2015 he was inducted as a Literary Fellow of the New Zealand Society of Authors.
May and Taylor were part of the team throughout the entire creative process, just as King wanted it, and their involvement ensured the film remained true to history. “The film is telling their life stories, and no one knows it better than them,” he says. “You can read as many books and magazine articles and watch as many videos and interviews, but when you can actually sit with the guys who can take you through the history, who can tell you anecdotes about Freddie that you’d never find out today, that meant the world to me. We all felt that we shouldn’t make the film unless everything was right–story, cast–everything else had to fall into place. The bottom line for me is for everyone involved to be proud of the storytelling, to be proud of a movie about their life stories that’s going to be shown around the world.”
The project went through several incarnations until it finally reached the screen, and May and Taylor were impressed by King‘s tenacity and commitment.
“Graham King is a wonderful producer who has been with us all along the way,” says May. “There were moments when Roger and I thought it was never going to happen. So the fact that Graham has managed to pull it together with such a great team and cast is very exciting.”
It’s not surprising that Freddie Mercury still holds a special place in Brian May‘s heart. “There’s too many memories of Freddie,” he recalls fondly.
“I remember that wicked smile and sparkle in his eye. And he would say something totally inappropriate and wicked. But he was just funny and nice, and he didn’t have a bad bone in his body. He did have quite a quick temper, though, and he would react, but underneath that he was very shy, and if there was a confrontation, he would deal with it, and then he didn’t want to know. I remember the great warmth Freddy had and how he wouldn’t waste any time on anything. He was always focused, he always knew what he wanted to get out of a situation. And that’s a good lesson to learn rather than trying to please everybody else in a particular situation.”
King is also proud that the film succeeds in showing how the music came together. “How does a band create their music? That’s a really difficult thing to show on screen,“ he says. “The audience is going to really enjoy seeing that. It’s not just Freddie’s story, it’s also the story of how they created the sound. How did they invent ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ which was completely panned when it came out?”
One of the scenes that May was particularly pleased to see included was the band‘s first appearance on legendary BBC-TV program Top of the Pops in 1974 featuring “Killer Queen,” which propelled the band to international stardom, despite or perhaps because of Freddie’s outrageously suggestive performance and even more suggestive skintight outfit.
“Another band cancelled at the last minute, and we were suddenly in,“ says May. “But it was very strange for us because BBC policy then was that nobody played live, you played to track, and the singer lip-synced. It never felt comfortable for us because we were very much a live act. But it made us decide to make the video for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ because we knew we would look ridiculous standing on the stage miming to that. Because the track got to number one and stayed there for six weeks, Top of the Pops played the video for six weeks. We didn’t realize that it was going to go all around the world and have the same effect. In Australia for example, where we hadn’t made much of a mark, it was enormous. That video really turned us into stars.”
The film begins and ends with Queen’s iconic Live Aid performance. Live Aid was one of the most important cultural events of the 1980s, bringing together the world’s biggest superstars in a benefit concert on two stages, Wembley Stadium in London and the John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, on July 13, 1985. Organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for those affected by the famine in Ethiopia, the concert was one of the largest satellite link-ups and TV broadcasts of all time, watched by an audience totaling 1.9 billion in 150 countries around the world.
The decision to bookend the story with that incredible live performance made perfect sense to King and the team. The concert came at a pivotal moment as it brought the band back together after Mercury’s move to Germany, where he recorded two solo albums. It also came at a time when Mercury was at his lowest ebb, under the influence of Paul Prenter, surrounded by hangers-on who were exploiting Mercury’s generosity, and falling dangerously into a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse.
Queen‘s performance was a shot in the arm for the Live Aid organizers. “People were watching in the UK, but they weren’t calling in to pledge money, which was what the whole concert was about,” says King. “Freddie came on and did a set that the band had rehearsed for three weeks, so it was a perfect 20-minute set, and he brought everyone together. He made them realize what the event was all about.”
King believes Mercury’s multi-cultural background went some way to explaining why this happened. “I think Freddie was somebody who brought people together, no matter your race, your sexuality, your nationality; people joined together when Freddie came on stage. It was a moment that gave you the chills. When Freddie told people to phone in, people listened and started phoning in. Queen got the largest single donation, around £1million, which in those days was huge!”
Everyone has their own personal memories of the day, but it had a special significance for those who performed there, especially Brian May. “I can remember the rush, everything’s fast and it’s exciting,” he recalls. “Because it was a one-off and kind of terrifying in a very nice way. Like every gig, there was that great relief coming off the stage. You’re just glad nothing terrible happened, there were no train wrecks, and you’ve kind of acquitted yourself well. It was a great feeling, and I remember Bob Geldof was very pleased. It’s a great memory because everyone brushed their egos aside and supported and encouraged each other.”
Graham King has high hopes for the film and its message for the younger generation. “This is a really uplifting film,“ he says. “I hope that if there’s anyone in the audience who is confused or being bullied or feeling like an outcast, they would take to heart what Mary says to Freddie in the film: ‘Don’t you see who you can be? Anything you want to be.’ That’s a very important message in today’s world.”
But it’s also the music that King knows will capture the audience’s imagination. “I go to see a film because I want to feel it, not just see it. For me it was always, if we can get 500 people in a theater clapping and singing along to those powerful anthems that they grew up with and that are a part of their lives, then that’s a film experience. And I think we‘ve done just that. I want people to come out of this film and hug the person they’re next to and sing along with Queen songs. ‘We Will Rock You,’ ‘We Are The Champions,’ ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’–all these songs are larger-than-life and can’t help but put a smile on your face. I wanted to continue the legacy of Freddie Mercury and Queen, to show a younger generation who Freddie Mercury was, how the band survived through times, how the music business has changed, what it was like to make a record in those days, what it was like for four guys to meet and create that special sound. Freddie always called the band his family. And I think there’s no better time in the world to pass on the idea that we are all part of one family, no matter who we are or where we come from.”
Rami Malek agrees: “I hope that everyone leaves the film as inspired by Freddie’s story as I am, feeling confident, feeling inspired. That they know it’s okay to be who you are. I hope that they can sing as loudly as he can and own every truth of theirs, and not feel like they have to hide anything, but that they can just be, and enjoy exactly who they were meant to be.”