The greatest visual strength of box-office hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” is conveying the evolution of Freddy Mercury (Rami Malek) and Queen amid the cultural shift of the ’70s and ’80s, climaxing with the legendary Live Aid concert in 1985. However, Live Aid was actually shot first, which turned out to be a blessing for Malek and co-stars Gwilym Lee (guitarist Brian May), Ben Hardy (drummer Roger Taylor), and Joseph Mazzello (bassist John Deacon).
“It’s kind of a crazy thing to start the shoot with one of the hardest and most pivotal moments,” said Newton Thomas Sigel, director Bryan Singer’s go-to cinematographer. “But it allowed the cast to come together early and create their chemistry. I remember watching them rehearse three days before the shoot. They didn’t know each other and those four guys really jelled, just like a rock’n’roll band would.”
The Live Aid segment, with an exact set replica of Wembley Stadium created and brought to Bovingdon Airfield, was shot with the Alexa 65 and Arri’s new DNA lenses. It looks sharper and cleaner than the early part of the movie, which depicts the rise of Queen through a nostalgic haze of gold and pastels. Here we witness Queen at the top of its game — their complete 20-minute concert film will be available on Fox’s upcoming home entertainment release.
“For us, as storytellers, what was really interesting was where Freddie was at emotionally and what this concert meant to the band,” Sigel said. “We wanted visually to put you on the stage with these guys, to see the interaction between them, to know that Freddie’s amiss at the beginning of the concert and then that increasing confidence as the concert went on.”
The Live Aid sequence begins with a thrilling aerial over central London, flying above the crowd at Wembley, culminating with a poignant 180-degree turn around Mercury at the piano. “There’s an unnaturally long pause before he starts performing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,'” Sigel said, “and the other guys in the band wondering if he’s going to freeze up, is he going to break down? He’s just heard some pretty horrific news [about contracting AIDS] and he just begins to soar.”
But the Live Aid sequence was tough to shoot because the actual concert was ordinary looking and because they had to deal with typically bad weather in London. “The big challenge was, unlike the actual concert, where the sun was already falling when Queen came on, we had to do the dance of blocking sun and creating sun,” said Sigel.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth
“The other thing we had to deal with was the lighting for the Live Aid performance because each band only had about 20 minutes, and there was no rehearsal, and they also inherited the stage and lighting from a Bruce Springsteen concert that had taken place a few days earlier. So the lighting of the actual event was quite crude and I have a hunch it was very much improv’d on the day with band after band after band winging it, I think.”
Yet whatever poetic license Sigel took with Live Aid was in sync with Singer’s vision of portraying the joy of Queen performing together as a band of talented misfits playing to the audience in the last row. “He just wanted it to be a celebration of Queen and not a descent into the dark side,” Sigel said. “It was critical that we acknowledge Freddy’s sexuality, that we don’t shy away from the fact that he died of AIDS, but it was meant to show the feeling of exhilaration making and performing their music.”
However, when Singer reportedly left the production to be with his ailing mother and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher for the last couple of weeks, it was tough on Sigel, too. Fortunately, most of the movie was shot and the transition was seamless. “Dexter came on board and was respectful to carrying on the game plan we had already set out [shooting some of the early scenes between Mercury and girlfriend Mary played by Lucy Boynton],” he said. “He had a good rapport with the actors.”
“It’s such a great story and tells us so much about our culture and our music,” added Sigel. “And it really puts you in the middle of Queen in a way that’s true to their experience.”