During their peak in the 70s and 80s, Queen divided audiences and critics. The band often prompted a cool response from the music press but still enjoyed huge commercial appeal around the world.
It seems strangely fitting that their biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, has continued that tradition.
When it hit movie theaters last year, the critics – again – were lukewarm or downright scathing. Audiences, however, lapped it up. Taking over $640million at the box office against a production budget of $52million, it’s the the most successful music biopic in history.
It’s also been nominated for a clutch of awards, including five Oscars. Last month it won the 2019 Golden Globe for Best Movie.
Most people I know enjoyed it immensely. However, for some, the fact it has played around with some key elements of Freddie Mercury’s life has curtailed their enjoyment. I’ve seen some apoplectic comments on social media over one particular alteration.
Freddie Mercury and his HIV diagnosis
In the movie, Mercury goes for a HIV test and finds out his positive status. Mindful that his days are likely numbered, his diagnosis is depicted as the driver for him and Queen putting on the show of their career at Live Aid in London in 1985.
Critics point out Mercury was reportedly diagnosed in 1987, and therefore this narrative is fantasy.
As an occasional film critic, I’m very familiar with the way real life stories are altered to create a narrative arc. If you want pure facts, go watch a documentary.
And I don’t mean that to sound dismissive. I’m a huge fan of music documentaries and would encourage anyone who enjoyed the movie to seek out a recent BBC 4 documentary on the making of the song, Bohemian Rhapsody.
‘True-story’ screenplays often have to manipulate facts to help drive a story along and fit a two-hour time frame in a cogent order.
According to one analysis, Bohemian Rhapsody sticks closer to the facts than other recent award-winning movies such as The Imitation Game or The Dallas Buyers Club.
Maybe less people were offended by those movies because their history is more distant (The Imitation Game concerns itself with Alan Turing’s codebreaking in World War II), or they focus on people who were not famous. The Dallas Buyers Club screenplay pretty much invented the Jared Leto trans character for dramatic purposes.
Living under the shadow of AIDS
However, concerning Mercury’s health, despite not receiving his HIV diagnosis until 1987, is it not possible that Mercury already had an inner sense that he perhaps was living on borrowed time?
The BBC DJ Paul Gambaccini has previously spoken of a time he ran into Mercury at London gay club, Heaven, in 1984. At the time, the horror of the AIDS epidemic was beginning to hit home for many gay and bisexual men.
Gambaccini knew Mercury was prolific in his sexual appetites. He asked the singer if learning of AIDS had changed his attitude towards sex
Mercury replied, ‘Darling, my attitude is “fuck it.” I’m doing everything with everybody.’
Gambaccini said, ‘I had that literal sinking feeling. I’d seen enough in New York to know that Freddie was going to die.’
If that was Gambaccini’s evaluation in 1984, it’s hard to believe Mercury didn’t also have some sense that he was at risk. Many gay and bi men in the 1980s feared they would not see old age. Despite this, many still put off getting tested for the virus.
Artistic or commercial compromise
That the makers of Bohemian Rhapsody wanted to end the movie on a high with the Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium is understandable.
Ending with Mercury’s diagnosis or death would inevitably have led to criticism about repeating the ‘tragic homosexual’ storylines of Hollywood past, when gay characters ended up being killed off or leading miserable lives.
But to end at Live Aid without referencing Mercury’s HIV status would also have led to criticism. Bringing his HIV diagnosis forward was their compromise. One of several in the movie.
Whether this represents a commercial or artistic compromise remains debatable. But for me, making this particular alteration does not ruin the movie. Mercury may not have received his diagnosis, but HIV would have been in the back of his mind. In fact, it was at the forefront of the minds of many men who had sex with other men in the 80s.
Playing South Africa
There are other elements of Bohemian Rhapsody’s screenplay one can question. The band controversially played apartheid-era South Africa in the early 1980s. At the time, the United Nations asked musicians to boycott the country over its racist laws.
The band faced tremendous criticism over the decision. The surviving members today now admit it was a huge mistake. Bohemian Rhapsody overlooks this less-celebrated episode of their career.
It’s been speculated the South Africa tour dates were one of the reasons Queen were not invited to participate in the recording of the Band Aid single, Do They Know It’s Christmas, in late 1984. Mercury was allegedly upset by the snub.
Band Aid co-founder Bob Geldof, did however, invite them to later take part in Live Aid six months later.
Ultimately, the band – and Mercury – will be remembered for the show they put on rather than the motivators behind it. And that’s what Bohemian Rhapsody seeks to capture.
Follow David Hudson on Twitter at @davidhudson_uk