The Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which stars Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, tells the story of the celebrated Queen singer and songwriter, who died on 24 November 1991. Mercury himself loved films, a passion that started at St Peter’s public school in India, where he loathed the games of cricket but loved the film-club nights where they showed John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Indeed, Freddie Mercury’s favourite films offer a revealing insight into the life of one of rock’s most theatrical frontmen.
Later, when he was a superstar, Mercury rarely slept more than four hours a night and used to stay up watching films. If ever he thought he was being too arrogant, he would say, “I’m starting to sound like Gloria Swanson,” the Hollywood star of Sunset Boulevard; one of his favourite male actors was the late Burt Reynolds.
Here is a guide to Freddie Mercury’s favourite films.
Shanghai Express (1932)
Like writer Ernest Hemingway, Freddie Mercury was a huge fan of Marlene Dietrich, and he particularly liked the film Shanghai Express, in which she delivers the memorable line: “It took more than one man to make me Shanghai Lily.” When photographer Mick Rock showed Mercury the iconic George Hurrell photograph of Dietrich, taken during filming, the band copied the pose for the shot that Rock took for the artwork of Queen II in 1974.
A Night At The Opera (1935)
Mercury and his fellow Queen bandmates Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon named two of their albums – A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races – after Marx Brothers’ madcap comedy films, which they said “cheered up the band”. When Queen were in America in the late 70s, they met Groucho Marx, who had written to them praising their choice of album names. They were taken aback when he played a song for them on the guitar. Groucho, who would spend hours practising Rachmaninoff’s Prelude In C-Sharp Minor, impressed them with his skill.
The Women (1939)
Mercury admired director George Cukor, who was a celebrated filmmaker (Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, A Star Is Born) and a leading gay socialite in the Hollywood scene of the 30s and 40s. In 1979, the British DJ and TV presenter Kenny Everett shot footage of Mercury in a London garden acting out parts of Cukor’s film Camille. Mercury said, “Kenny shot mad zany footage of us doing a silly take-off of Greta Garbo.” The Queen singer’s most treasured Cukor film, however, was 1939’s The Women, the story of a sweet girl (Norma Shearer) losing her husband to the vampish Joan Crawford.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Drummer Roger Taylor was also a passionate cinema-goer and remembers being awestruck at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as youngster. Taylor talked a lot about movies with Mercury (“We’d all go and see the latest Stanley Kubrick film, every four years”) and said the singer’s “absolute favourite film” was Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, which the American Film Institute voted the best comedy ever made. In the film, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play musicians who disguise themselves as women to trick mobsters who are chasing them. They fall for the band’s singer, Sugar Cane, played by Marilyn Monroe. Peter Freestone, who was Mercury’s personal assistant for 12 years, said, “Freddie admired Marilyn as the icon she was, and felt that she was used by the studios who didn’t fully understand everything she had to offer. Freddie was very happy when costume designer Diana Moseley turned up with the Marilyn T-shirt for a Queen tour.”
Imitation Of Life (1959)
In 1991, when he was gravely ill towards the end of his life, Mercury used to lie curled up on a sofa in Montreux watching Lana Turner in Imitation Of Life. The melodrama, by German director Douglas Sirk, is about aspiring actress Turner and her friendship with an impoverished black woman played by Juanita Moore. “It’s just a camp joy,” said Mercury.
Mercury adored the film Cabaret, which was set in Berlin in the 30s and starred Liza Minnelli as the young American Sally Bowles, who sings at the famous Kit Kat Klub. Mercury said, “I like the cabaretish sort of thing. In fact, one of my early inspirations came from Cabaret. I absolutely adore Liza Minnelli, she’s a total wow. The way she delivers her songs – the sheer energy. The way the lights enhance every movement of the show. I think you can see similarities in the excitement and energy of a Queen show.” The admiration was mutual. Minnelli later said, “I performed at Wembley Stadium at the concert to honour Freddie. He was a huge fan of mine, which I am still tickled to know. He was one of the best of all time.”
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Mercury saw the stage version of The Rocky Horror Show at the Royal Court Theatre, in Chelsea, London, and went to see the film version of the cult classic, which starred Tim Curry, in 1975. Mercury loved its choreography, fluid sexuality and atmosphere of total excess. Curry and Mercury became friends, and keen horticulturalist Curry later told House And Garden magazine about designing a garden for the singer: “Freddie came back from a tour and said, ‘The garden, dear, it’s dead.’ I said, ‘What? Did you water it?’ And Freddie said, ‘Water it, dear?’”
Purple Rain (1984)
Mercury would often comment on how impressed he was by the musical talent of Prince, and he loved the star’s semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain. Mercury’s former PA Peter Freestone said, “If Freddie stayed in during the evenings he would usually ‘veg out’ and watch television… He had one video of Prince, which he forced many people to watch, sometimes over and over again. These video sessions generally occurred at two or three in the morning after Freddie and entourage returned from an evening on the town. The Prince tape was immediately put on and Freddie had sole control of the remote and his guests were subjected to Freddie’s enthusiasm for said artist again and again and again.”
Flash Gordon (1980)
The Queen soundtrack for the film Flash Gordon includes a celebrated line shouted by Brian Blessed. Roger Taylor said at the time, “We’ve been offered quite a few films, but Flash Gordon was something which I think Brian May and I were quite attracted to, because of its sort of sci-fi, 30s connotations.” Shortly after making the soundtrack, Mercury was photographed at a concert, during an encore for ‘We Will Rock You’, sitting on Darth Vadar’s shoulders. Though he sang the line “And I don’t like Star Wars” in the song ‘Bicycle Race’, it was a joke. May later said, “Freddie liked Star Wars a lot.”
Mercury and the band weren’t particularly interested in being part of the film Highlander when it was first mooted in 1984. John Deacon recalled, “We wanted a rest and then we saw a 20-minute cut and thought, That’s great.” The fantasy-action adventure starred Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery. Director Russell Mulcahy said, “I was at a point in my career when I could call in a few favours. Queen had done a great score for Flash Gordon, so we gave them a 20-minute reel of different scenes and they went: ‘Wow!’ We’d only expected them to do one song, but they wanted to write one each. Freddie Mercury did ‘Princes Of The Universe’, Brian May did ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ and Roger Taylor did ‘It’s A Kind Of Magic’.”
The Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack is out on 19 October and can be ordered here.