How did Rami Malek, a reluctant singer with a limited range, find the vocal confidence to play Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody? Top vocal coach David Combes reveals how he helped the actor to “sing with balls” and master Mercury’s high belt.
It started, quite literally, with a whimper. Yes, Rami Malek’s
Academy Award-nominated portrayal of Freddie Mercury in the Queen bio-pic Bohemian Rhapsody has canine origins.
“I started out by asking Rami to whimper like a dog,” explains David Combes, a sought-after London-based vocal coach and singer.
“I said: ‘I want you to make a sound like you’re trying to get the attention of a puppy.’ And because he’s such a great actor, he totally got into it and did a great job.”
This may sound like an unusual request from a singing teacher, but there was method in Combes’ madness.
Playing Freddie Mercury
In order to step into the shoes of one of the most flamboyant singers of all time, Malek had to be able to sing with complete confidence. Miming was never going to cut it – hardened Queen fans would spot the fakery a mile off.
“Freddie always sang with courage, so Rami had to sing with balls, it just wouldn’t work otherwise,” Combes says.
But Malek was not a confident singer. “He found it very intimidating. He had quite a fragile relationship with his voice because as a child and even at drama school he’d been told ‘You don’t have a very nice singing voice, don’t sing’.
“I knew there was a good voice there, because he had such a rich and resonant speaking voice. It was just about unlocking it.”
One of Malek’s biggest issues was coming out of chest voice. His voice stopped around middle C – about an octave below where he needed to go to sing those Queen songs.
Hence, the whimpering.
Combes was familiar with the concept of the primal voice (explored in depth by Janice Chapman in Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice and investigated further for the contemporary voice by Dane Chalfin) and decided to take singing out of the equation altogether.
“I said: ‘Let’s forget about singing. We’re not going to stand at a piano and talk about pitches and work out notes or melodies. We’re going to sit here and whimper.’
“Once we’d done that is was a case of ‘Okay now we’re going to open that up’. We had to move beyond middle C and get into F sharps, G, G sharps – and then go stratospheric. It became about calling, yelling and screaming. We used tried and tested exercises. I said: ‘You stub your toe, what happens? Make that sound’. It was a way of releasing the whole upper section of his voice.”
Combes and Malek, who were introduced by Grammy award winning arranger and composer Steve Sidwell, worked together for about 18 months, and slowly converted all those primal sounds back into singing.
The turning point came when Malek mastered Crazy Little Thing Called Love. “He came in one morning and said ‘You’ll never believe what I did last night. I went to karaoke and sang that song’,” recalls Combes.
“That was the moment I thought that his relationship with his singing voice had changed. Singing had gone from being something tucked away that he never wanted to do, to something that he could play with and enjoy – and more importantly do publicly.”
Combes was astounded when he saw the final cut of Bohemian Rhapsody. (The vocals you hear in the film’s performance sequences are a blend of Malek’s and Canadian singer Marc Martel.) “I was an absolute mess crying at the end. I can’t tell you how pleased I was with the results. I really thought Rami did an amazing job, his commitment to the