Interview: Biographer Lesley Ann Jones on Queen, Journalism, and Bohemian Rhapsody.

The 24th of October will see the release of the official Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody; meanwhile, I chatted to journalist, broadcaster, and biographer Lesley Ann Jones. Today is the release of a reissue of her biography of Freddie Mercury;

The updated version of your Freddie Mercury biography was released earlier today; congratulations. For people who aren’t familiar with your work, could you briefly tell us how you came to write the book?

Thank you! I knew Freddie Mercury and Queen during the 1980s. I accompanied them on tour all over the world, was with them at Live Aid in July 1985, and enjoyed a close relationship with the band. After Freddie’s death in 1991, I was approached by a literary agent who wanted to commission a definitive biography of him. He wondered if I knew anyone who might be interested. The rest, as they say …

You have also previously worked as a journalist; how does writing biographies compare?

Fleet Street was the toughest training ground on earth. If you could work there, you could work anywhere. The skills I acquired as a journalist on national newspapers turned out to be the perfect preparation for becoming an author of biographies. It is basically the same skill set, applied to a more in-depth project: comprehensive research, finding interview subjects, persuading them to talk to you, having a handle on the techniques required to get the best out of them; assessing the information gathered, deciding on the point you want (or have been told) to make, crafting the piece with a story arc that will satisfy the reader with a structure of beginning-middle-end. Most of the newspaper features I wrote came in at between 1,500 and 1,800 words. My books are between 90,000 and 150,000 words long. Length and pace are essentially the only differences.

How did the upcoming release of the official biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, influence the biography?

There were several attempts, after Freddie died in November 1991, to make a feature film based on his life. Each time a production company or film studio approached my publishers Hodder & Stoughton to negotiate acquisition of rights to my first biography of Freddie (published 1997, six years after his death), Queen’s manager Jim Beach refused to grant permission to use their music. No songs, no film. Then, in the period approaching the 21st anniversary of Freddie’s passing, in November 2012, ‘Borat’ star Sacha Baron Cohen was contracted by Queen Productions to play Freddie in a film that Queen said would focus on a specific, heart-rending period of the star’s life and career, as outlined to me by the screenwriter they had hired.

Peter Morgan (‘The Queen’, ‘Frost/Nixon’, ‘The Deal’, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’) researched and wrote three different scripts for the film. He contacted me after reading my book, with Beach’s knowledge. Shortly after our initial meeting in London, I began advising Morgan on aspects of the Freddie Mercury and Queen story. ‘I told the producers I did not want to make a movie about a rock star dying of Aids, said Morgan. ‘We know what happened. My film had to tell the untold part, or it wasn’t worth doing’.

Having heard from Morgan what shape his film would take, I revised, updated and rewrote my biography, for publication to coincide with the film, originally scheduled for release in 2012. As well as more than a hundred new interviews, I included fresh revelations and brought the story of the band up to date. I added background to Queen’s stage musical ‘We Will Rock You’, co-written with Ben Elton which opened at London’s Dominion Theatre in May 2002 – the longest-running musical at that venue, with further productions in Ireland, Australia, Canada, Russia, Spain, Japan, South Africa, Switzerland, Austria, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. A film adaptation of the musical was planned. Robert de Niro co-funded the musical. His film company TriBeCa Productions, together with Graham King’s GK Films and Queen Films, were set to co-finance the musical film. A rights package to include the Queen songs ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘We Are the Champions’, ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and ‘You’re My Best Friend’ was agreed. But then came the idea for the bigger picture: a full-blown Freddie/Queen biopic.

But screenwriter and band were never able to agree content. While Morgan envisaged a movie that would take fans both to the edge of the stage and behind the scenes to depict the first-ever African-born rock star conquering the world but losing his fight with HIV, the rest of Queen demanded a film in which they, the band, would be shown overcoming the tragic loss of their frontman to go from strength to strength. Morgan’s scripts were rejected.

Several others have dropped out/fallen foul/been sacked. After Morgan came Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (biopics on Ali and Richard Nixon). Then Anthony McCarten (‘The Theory of Everything’). Then Justin Haythe (‘Revolutionary Road’). Peter Morgan’s name still appears in the credits as the original writer.

There have been several directors: Stephen Frears (‘My Beautiful Launderette’, ‘High Fidelity’, ‘The Grifters’, ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, ‘The Queen’, ‘Philomena’). He was fired. Dexter Fletcher (‘Wild Bill’, ‘Eddie the Eagle’). He quit.
Bryan Singer (‘X-Men’, ‘Superman Returns’, ‘The Usual Suspects’) was also sacked. It was rumoured that he had a bad relationship with Rami Malek (‘Mr Robot’, ‘Night at the Museum’, ‘Twilight Saga’), the actor eventually hired to play Freddie. Singer later issued a statement claiming that the producers had refused to allow him leave to care for his elderly, ailing parent. Dexter Fletcher returned.

Sacha Baron Cohen seemed born to play Freddie. The band and their co-producers thought so too.’Queen is one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and a music brand all unto itself,’ said Graham King. ‘Freddie Mercury was an awe-inspiring performer, so with Sacha starring in the role coupled with Peter’s screenplay and the support of Queen, we have the perfect combination to tell the real story behind their success.’ But Baron Cohen pulled out in 2013, revealing dissent among the Queen ranks, and said the band were ‘misguided’ for thinking that anyone would want to see a film about them:
‘It was only ever about Freddie Mercury,’ he said. ‘Not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you see the band carry on.’ ‘Sacha became an arse,’ retorted Brian May. ‘We had some nice times with him kicking around ideas, but he went off and told untruths about what happened.’

Ben Whishaw, the latest ‘Q’ in the ‘James Bond’ franchise, was screen-tested to play Freddie, and was hired. He quit soon afterwards. Rami Malek was eventually chosen. He looks good to me.

What would be your favourite anecdote in the book?

I adore Sir Tim Rice’s take on the meaning of the song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. It did attract controversy, with Roger Taylor and Brian May claiming that ‘no one except Freddie’ knew the real meaning of the song that he wrote. But I think that Sir Tim got too close to the truth for comfort. His dissection and explanation of the lyrics makes absolute sense to me. See the book for details! (You can find out more here.)

What do you think about Queen, in terms of legacy, given what they’ve achieved with Adam Lambert?

Look, the most important thing a rock superstar can do is die young. Freddie was cut off in his prime. His death made Queen’s catalogue instantly more desirable. The Walt Disney company’s label Hollywood Records had signed Queen shortly before Freddie’s death. Many people scorned it as a stupid move. In fact, it was successful beyond all possible hope. They knew they couldn’t lose. They knew that Freddie was ill. Had he lived on, they would have recouped their $10 million within 8 years. If he died, they projected that they would be even in 3 years. As it happened, the movie ‘Wayne’s World’ came out, with the insanely brilliant ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ headbanging sequence in the car, and they were even in 3 WEEKS. Up until then, Queen were a dead issue in the US, although still huge throughout the rest of the world. The complete output of their long career was digitally remastered and rereleased on CD. Freddie died, and suddenly Queen were huge again. Although Adam Lambert is a good and reliable artist, he could not hold a candle to Freddie. There are plenty of other artists who could have stepped into Freddie’s shoes and the result would have been roughly the same. My favourite is the Australian performer John Blunt, who makes a very good living impersonating Freddie. I have seen him perform live in London, and I took part in a Freddie documentary with him. He is uncannily Freddie. There is also the Canadian, Marc Martel, who I believe has recorded some vocal sequences for the upcoming film. The Queen legacy is assured now. They have more than earned their place in rock history.

You’re also working on a biography, Tumbling Dice; is there anything you can tell us about it?

‘Tumbling Dice’ is a personal memoir of my years on Fleet Street. I often take part in literary festivals around the world. I am asked as much about my own life as a journalist, rock writer and celebrity interviewer as I am quizzed about the subject of my latest book. People have been saying to me for years, ‘Why don’t you write your own book? I bet you have incredible stories to tell!’ I thought about it, and I realised I really did have extraordinary tales to relate. Unbelievable and hair-raising tales, some of them. I also realised that I wanted my three children to know what my life was once like. I wanted to introduce them to the girl I was before I had them. They know me as the bitch in the kitchen, the stay-at-home mum, Her Indoors who went shopping, got breakfast, laundered their sports kit, ran them to and from school, cooked dinner and was always there: unmade-up, in Uggs and leggings, dishevelled and sleep-deprived. The woman who had relinquished a thrilling career to have them. How could Mummy have worked in that cesspit, flown all those miles, met all those people, lived that mad life? I did, and I needed them to know about it. Then there’s the other reason. Time passes. I had put that mad past on the back burner. What if one day I found myself no longer able to recall the detail of this assignment, that splash, all those crazy encounters? What if the faces faded, the names disappeared, and an entire eccentric era that was already less than a whole memory evaporated and ceased to exist, because I could no longer remember it? I needed to get it down on paper for myself, as much as for anyone else.

What do you think about the state of journalism today?

I think we all know that newspapers are on the way out. Primarily because they are no longer newspapers. They chase the news, they don’t break it. Our 3 primary sources of daily news are now the internet, 24-hour TV and radio. Those days are gone of a daily rag dropping through the letterbox bearing a massive and surprising splash: we know about it already. So newspapers are more op-ed and feature-driven nowadays. Circulations are through the floor, advertising revenue is flagging, and there are consequently no longer the budgets to sustain a full staff complement or to spend proper money on long-term investigations. During my day on Fleet Street, we flew all over the world business or first class, and even on Concorde. We stayed in 5-star hotels. Our expenses were unlimited. We got the massive exclusives, so it was all money well-spent. Nowadays, papers don’t need to send anyone anywhere, and few journalist travel to the extent that we once did. The internet, as well as all of the above, has killed all that. We certainly enjoyed the golden age of Fleet Street. We knew then and we know now how lucky we were.

For young journalists who wish to follow in your footsteps, what would be your advice?

A tricky one. That world no longer exists. It’s not coming back. Blogging seemed a credible alternative for a while, as did self-publishing. But both became saturated. Good content remains king. The essence of journalism has always been finding stuff out. The truth and credible opinion will always be fashionable. Journalism is no longer a job for life. But those driven to write should always write. Things change, but they also shake down. If it’s what drives you, then do it, I would say. But acquire other skills too. Tie alternative strings to your bow.

To find out more about Bohemian Rhapsody, make sure you visit Lesley Ann’s author page. For more news, visit her website, and for more of her tales, make sure you visit her blog.