Freddie Mercury Biographer Lesley-Ann Jones on the 'Incredibly Shy Man' She Knew
As we approach the 27th anniversary of Freddie Mercury's death, his enduring appeal is reaching far beyond the huge box office success of the Queen movie Bohemian Rhapsody — not just into the pop charts, but the book bestsellers, too.
The film is now the second highest-grossing music biopic ever in North America, with a three-week box office tally of $127 million, from total worldwide takings of $384 million. Many of the band's albums and songs are figuring prominently on sales charts far and wide. Meanwhile, British author Lesley-Ann Jones is in the upper echelons of the Sunday Times bestsellers with her biography, published as Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury by Hodder in the U.K. and Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster's Touchstone imprint.
The book climbs 8-5 on the General Paperbacks chart compiled by Nielsen BookScan and published by the Sunday Times on Nov. 18. Jones' second biography of the flamboyant entertainer, who died of complications from AIDS on Nov. 24, 1991, was first published in 2011.
"I never imagined, even in my most elaborate dreams, that this book would make the Sunday Times bestsellers, seven years on," the author tells Billboard. A former Fleet Street journalist whose other books include biographies of David Bowie and Marc Bolan, Jones came to know Mercury well when she interviewed, and traveled with, him and Queen from the early 1980s. "The book was a labor of love," she says. "I adored the man. It's thrilling that so many people are now getting to read his unexpurgated story."
Jones' first biography of Mercury was published by Hodder, and appeared in several languages. Hodder were approached by several production companies for the film rights, but music clearances for such a project were denied by the group's management company, Queen Productions, who later committed to a fully-fledged Queen film of their own.
Peter Morgan, the writer of such films as The Queen, Frost/Nixon, Rush and the Netflix series The Crown, was hired to write the screenplay for the film, with Jones on board as script consultant and British comedian-actor Sacha Baron Cohen lined up for the Mercury role.
"Morgan saw that the story was always Freddie, never Queen," observes Jones. "Baron Cohen was enlisted to play Freddie. He and Morgan were on the same page. Brian [May] and Roger [Taylor] insisted that the story was about a band whose lead singer died in tragic circumstances. But they then went from strength to strength, selling more records than they had ever done during their star's lifetime."
The project became mired in disagreements; Morgan retains a credit in the new Bohemian Rhapsody film as its original writer. Hodder, anticipating the original movie that didn't arrive, had approached Jones about republishing her book; she declined, and instead the new biography was commissioned by Hodder in 2010, published the next year and ultimately translated into 27 languages.
"But still no film," recounts the writer. "Eventually, after almost a decade of sackings and wranglings, the Bohemian Rhapsody motion picture was on its way, Hodder decided to republish the second book, and to change its U.K. title to match the film's."
She notes that the biggest international markets for the book have been Japan, Poland, Italy, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and South America. Russian rights have recently been sold, with more deals likely to follow.
Jones is forthright about the differences between Mercury's big-screen portrayal and the star she knew. "The film is a superficial montage of snapshots of the life and times of Freddie and Queen," she says. "Freddie was 45 when he died. No two-hour flick could portray his whole life story, or capture his true essence. His life and his personality were too complicated for that.
"The most fascinating period of Freddie's life was that of his early years. Born on Zanzibar, East Africa, sent thousands of miles away to school in India, seeing his parents and sister only once a year thereafter, becoming consumed by separation anxiety...being a textbook academic until he discovered Western pop via singles imports, launching his first band, the Hectics, getting expelled from school, returning to Zanzibar unqualified for any successful future, the family running for their lives during the 1964 revolution, landing in London, Freddie enrolling at art school and discovering Jimi Hendrix. For me," says Jones, "there is an entire second film in Freddie's childhood and teens."
Away from his larger-than-life stage persona, Mercury was a "very polite, respectful man," says his biographer. "He always took the opportunity to endear himself to audiences by doing small, specific things that would appeal to them. I was with him in Budapest when he was trying to learn the words to a traditional folk song, 'Tavaszi Szél Vizet Áraszt' [The spring wind makes waters flood].
"He couldn't quite get them, so he scrawled them in black marker pen on his left palm. During the performance, he made flamboyant gestures with his arm, which enabled him to read the lyrics written on his hand. It was so important to him to get it right. I melted.
"For such a flamboyant performer, he was an incredibly shy man," she adds. "He was inherently gentle and kind, but he could be waspish and cruel. The film hasn't scraped the surface of his multiple contradictions. Over the years that I toured with Queen, I had more than my share of downtime moments with him. He was candid with me about the ways in which fame and fortune had compromised and even ruined him. He craved anonymity and normality, much of the time."
Asked for her most poignant memory of Mercury, Jones conjures a scene from 1986, "sitting with him late at night on the banks of Lake Geneva in Montreux, staring out across the still, black water towards the soaring Alps. Freddie talked that night about being 'imprisoned' by fame. He said he wanted to be buried there without fanfare when his time came — he already knew that his days were numbered. 'Just throw me in the lake when I go,' he said."