Entertainment

How the Controversial Biopic 'Bohemian Rhapsody' Is Turning Teens Into Queen Fans

bohemian rhapsody
Alex Bailey/20th Century Fox Film

A couple months ago in Palm Bay, Florida, a high school math teacher let one of his students jump on his computer to play some music off YouTube while the class worked on an assignment. Instead of picking a contemporary pop hit to soundtrack the study session -- maybe an Ariana Grande song, or one of Florida's many popular hip-hop artists -- the female student made an unexpectedly old-school choice: "Bohemian Rhapsody," the head-banging classic rock radio staple by the band Queen. Quickly, the car scene from Wayne's World sprang to life in the classroom.

"I thought nothing of it," explains the teacher, who asked not to be identified by name, "until I looked up and saw every 9th and 10th grade student lip-syncing the whole song."

Clearly, Queen fever has gripped the nation. While most of the Florida teacher's students listen to what he describes as "terrible" trap-rap, many of them have been turned onto the work of the London rock band from the mega-popular biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which has generated over $800 million at the worldwide box office and was nominated for five awards, including Best Picture, at the 2019 Oscars, and took home four of them. The film's star, Rami Malek, who dons fake-teeth and dances his way through the film as frontman Freddie Mercury, collected the Academy's Best Actor trophy for his performance, and the living members of the group jammed together on stage -- with singer Adam Lambert on lead vocal duties -- to kick-off the host-less telecast

And yet, in certain circles, the movie is considered a joke. In addition to facing some harsh reviews from critics -- at 61% percent, it had the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of all the Best Picture nominees -- the film has been picked apart in the press, including this very site, for its factual inaccuracies, its treatment of Mercury's homosexuality, and its basic incoherence as a film. (One recent viral tweet, which showcases a real, poorly edited scene where the band first meets manager John Reid, made the case that it's "objectively bad.") More seriously, its director Bryan Singer, who was fired during filming yet holds the sole directing credit on the film, currently faces multiple allegations of sexual assault. Though Bohemian Rhapsody remained a focal point of the Oscars, both the GLAAD Media Awards and the BAFTA Awards either pulled the film from competition or removed Singer's name from the list of nominees following the publication of a story detailing his alleged behavior in The Atlantic in January. Not everyone is a fan of the movie, and for very legitimate reasons. 

bohemian rhapsody movie
Alex Bailey/20th Century Fox

So then, what is it about the movie that young Queen fans respond to? The music, mostly. "Alex," a 15-year-old from Europe who posted on reddit about discovering the band after seeing the film and asked to use a pseudonym for this article, wasn't always obsessed with Queen. They enjoyed the Pentatonix's cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and was familiar with some Queen songs from the radio but didn't know the band wrote them. (Alex uses gender neutral they/them pronouns.) "I realized how many Queen songs I actually knew," wrote Alex via private message about their experience watching the movie. "I started listening to the rest and have been hooked ever since."

Bohemian Rhapsody presents Mercury as a rock superhero, an image that likely resonates with kids raised on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jake, an American 15-year-old with self-described "crazy" music taste who says his favorite artists are Queen, Britney Spears, and Frank Sinatra, got excited about it after watching the trailer. He first saw the movie with his dad, a fellow Queen fan. Later, he saw it again with his friends. "They really like the band a lot more recently," he says over the phone. "They heard about it from the trailer, and listened to the music, then wanted to see the movie."

For high school students, music fandom can be notoriously territorial. Though Alex has found the online community of Queen fans to be welcoming and helpful, they do have some friends who identify as long-time Queen enthusiasts who don't think the people drawn in by the hype of the movie are "real fans." A cursory search on Twitter reveals some individuals grumbling about the "new" fans who recently discovered the band; the newbies can be derided as band-wagon jumpers. Obviously, your favorite band is personal.

"I think that's kinda ridiculous, but I do hear that a lot," says Jake. "One of my friends, he's big about AC/DC and stuff like that, so if you're like, 'Oh, I like them too and I just started listening to them,' he'll be like 'Oh, but you're just listening to them because they're popular. I started listening to them when I was born.'''

Though teens can be suspicious of fair-weather fans, older fans are often just excited to share their enthusiasm with a younger generation. Jacky Smith, who has run the Queen Fan Club since 1982, reports that she's seen an uptick in new members since the film premiered last fall, including an increase in "teenagers and younger" fans who just discovered the group. She considers the fan community to be a welcoming place and thinks the "die hards" are usually willing to share their knowledge. "We sometimes have to mention to the 'older fans' that they are not all experts," writes Smith when asked about the inter-generational divide. "Queen music is new to these kids -- that’s something exciting!"

Of course, a teen discovering the music of Queen in 2019 faces an incredibly different media environment and fan ecosystem than a teen picking up an album in a record store in the 1970s. Besides the easy access of streaming platforms -- in December, Universal Music Group announced that the song "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the most-streamed track from the 20th century with more than 1.6 billion global streams -- teens also experience a band's history through the prism of YouTube k-holes, Reddit threads, TikTok videos, and Instagram posts. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, the interest in the band is also tied to the actors portraying them in the film.

That appears to be especially true in the world of Queen fan fiction, which you can find countless examples of on the community-based writing platform Wattpad. (Netflix's teen-favorite romantic comedy The Kissing Booth originated as a story on the site.) The "Bohemian Rhapsody" tag reveals many stories centered around the group's drummer Roger Taylor, played in the film by 28-year-old British heartthrob Ben Hardy. Somebody to Love, one of the most popular BoRhap fanfiction titles on the site, follows the story of Rebecca Jackson, a young woman with a dull life ("She goes to work, comes home, and that's pretty much it.") who, in the words of the synopsis on the site, meets "a very handsome blonde-haired, blue-eyed drummer named Roger and suddenly, her life isn't so boring anymore." It currently has 44 chapters. "I don’t know why I wrote it," wrote the story's author, Wattpad user STACEEEEERS, when reached via private message. "Thought it’d be fun."

The potential blending of the actor, the real-life band member, and the character of the film makes it especially ripe for fan-driven reinterpretation. (Some of the Roger Taylor specific titles on Wattpad have sub-titles like "A Ben Hardy Story" and they often feature Hardy's face on the covers.) One writer of multiple Queen tales, a Wattpad user going by the username "sebasstan," said they were inspired by how "amazing" the band's story was. According to sebasstan, fan fiction reading devotees of Queen are drawn to Hardy because of how he portrayed Taylor in the movie, specifically "his arrogant personality" and "how he was a womanizer." 

"My readers are excited about my characters getting together," writes sebasstan, who was a Queen fan before Bohemian Rhapsody arrived in theaters. "I like to take my time on building the relationship of my characters and not rush it immediately. [Readers] also like the funny moments and the emotional moments in the chapters." 

The internet is not the only place for Queen fans to express their excitement about the band. As part of its promotional push for the film, 20th Century Fox held sing-along screenings of the movie in select cities and even organized a karaoke bus tour in markets like New York, Austin, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. (A reporter for Jezebel attended the New York one and described the experience as "the bus to hell.") According to John Goehrke, the Director of Visitor Engagement at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, young fans increasingly type the band's name into the museum's "Voice Your Choice" interactive voting tool, which lets visitors take a stand on who they'd like to see admitted into the Hall of Fame. When the computer tells them Queen was actually inducted in 2001, they end up voting for Freddie Mercury as a solo artist.

"Freddie Mercury as a solo artist is now in the top five in our current 'Voice Your Choice' standing, among artists like Iron Maiden, Rage Against the Machine, and Dave Matthews Band," says Goehrke in a phone interview. "And it's young kids who must've seen the film, maybe saw it with their family. Kids that are 10, 11, 12, 13, or 14 years old, they're the ones who are submitting Freddie Mercury's name."

bohemian rhapsody
Alex Bailey/20th Century Fox

Perhaps the Oscar voters also saw their vote for Rami Malek as a vote for Queen and Mercury's legacy: In the same way fans at the Hall of Fame want to show their devotion to the group, Academy members saw themselves as celebrating an influential, important artist; problematic aspects of the film be damned. When accepting his award for Best Editing, the film's editor John Ottman called the movie a "labor of love" for the cast and crew. "I think Freddie Mercury in a way kind of brought us all together from wherever he is just like he did his audience," he said, almost as if Mercury was the auteur behind the film. 

For a teenager like Jake, the Oscars weren't a priority, but he knew Bohemian Rhapsody was up for a bunch of awards. He said he'd watch some of the ceremony, though he was quick to note he's "definitely not going to watch the whole thing," and he hadn't heard anything about the allegations against Bryan Singer when I brought them up. Though he enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody, he didn't think it "seems like an Oscar winner"; he preferred the space drama First Man and wishes that had been up for Best Picture.

The high school math teacher I corresponded with was even more blunt: "[My students] have no idea who Bryan Singer is. Guarantee they have no idea who any of the directors are for the movies they watch. If celebs don't have a big social media presence, teenagers have no idea who they are." He might be incorrect about that: Alex had heard about the allegations, but it didn't change their opinion about the film. When I asked about Singer, they responded with a question more than a few Oscar viewers and Academy members likely wrestled with on Sunday: "Why should I let an asshat ruin a perfectly good movie?" 

Judging from the Oscars, it's an attitude the people who worked on the film appear to share as well. Singer's name went unmentioned during the acceptance speeches last night. All the winners for Bohemian Rhapsody were quick to thank the band's members, who took their seats in the audience after the opening medley, and the telecast was packed with Queen music throughout. Mike Myers, who had a cameo in the film as the grizzled EMI record executive convinced that Queen would never make it, even appeared on stage with his old friend Dana Carvey to reprise some of their Queen-adjacent Wayne's World jokes. 

It might be difficult to remember at this point, but Queen's artful deployment in Wayne's World, which was released in 1992 after Mercury's death and helped send "Bohemian Rhapsody" back up the Billboard singles chart, was a left-field choice. (The studio wanted to feature a track by the more popular at the time Guns N' Roses; Myers threatened to walk if they didn't let him use Queen.) The oft-imitated scene exposed the band to a whole new generation of fans who caught the movie in theaters, on VHS, or on cable. It's a cycle that feels like it must turn over every 20 or 30 years: a new potential Queen fan is born every day. 

"I'd say it's definitely increased in popularity," says Jake when I ask him if he'd been hearing the song more around school and on the radio. "I'd say a lot more people have either appreciated it or jumped on the bandwagon, but either way, I'd say it's good other people are listening to their music."

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.