Understandably, given a moviegoing public seemingly starved for reality, all of the biggest winners at this year’s Academy Awards were based on true events. And nearly all of them have generated huge controversies for the liberties they took with those true stories. While some of the criticism can sound censorious, none of it is about censorship, but about the larger social question of how much truth we should sacrifice for the sake of commerce and entertainment, two human endeavors with which education cannot compete.
One of those big Oscar contenders, the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, strays from the facts in ways some have even deemed “harmful.” But in one respect, at least—and perhaps the most important given its subject—it is faithful.
The film gets the music right, in part by syncing best actor-winner Rami Malek’s onstage performances as Mercury with Mercury’s actual voice, and sometimes with the voice of Marc Martel, “a vocal doppelgänger for the Queen frontman,” as Gavin Edwards writes at The New York Times, with a “prominent but invisible role in Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Audiences will not know when it’s Mercury or Martel, though the singer has received “fleeting ‘additional vocals’ billing” in the film. A nondisclosure agreement keeps Martel from telling—and he didn’t know until the film premiered which scenes would feature his voice. But the fact that audiences will likely never tell the difference is remarkable. Even Queen drummer Roger Taylor told Martel, “When I listen to you sing it’s like Freddie walked into the room.” This was the moment, the singer says, when he embraced the likeness, which he hadn’t thought very much of in the past. “It’s different from what I envisioned doing as a young musician.”
Martel’s other gig was as the lead singer of a Christian rock band called Downhere (he says nothing about how his particular sect views Mercury’s sexuality). He began performing Queen covers during a hiatus and has since appeared on American Idol, released an album of Queen covers, and is now touring in a tribute show, “The Ultimate Queen Celebration.” Martel is not a Mercury clone, nor has he ever attempted to be. He can “itemize the subtle differences” between his voice and Freddie’s, Edwards writes:
I’m not British, so I don’t usually sing with an accent. I don’t have extra teeth like he did, so my Ss come out normally — his were very piercing. But even if I don’t try to sing like Freddie Mercury, people still hear him in my voice, no matter what I do. I have this weird unique thing where I can sound like him, so why wouldn’t I?
It has become a highly marketable skill that’s “paying the bills right now,” as his manager put it, though Martel is eager to get back to his own songwriting. But even if he wasn’t celebrated at the Oscars, he’s proud of his contribution to the film, and to the lives of Queen fans. “It brings people so much joy and nostalgia,” Martel says, “and frequently I see people tearing up in the front row.” Whether or not you are a fan of Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie, you’ll be bowled over by the uncanny fidelity of Martel’s Mercury renditions (his features even resemble Mercury’s when he starts singing). Here, see Martel sing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” at the top, “We Are the Champions,” further up, and, above, a stunning rendition of “Love of My Life.”