When the trailer for the biographical musical Bohemian Rhapsody dropped in May, there was an immediate backlash.
Freddie Mercury, the late frontman of the hugely successful British rock band Queen is, of course, a bisexual icon. He’s also a figurehead of HIV and AIDS awareness. But both these aspects of his life were suspiciously absent from the clip.
Cries of bi-erasure and heterosexism were exasperated when the film’s PG-13 rating emerged. Just how sanitised would Bohemian Rhapsody be? Would the story of this LGBTI pop icon be completely straight-washed? Following last night’s London premiere, the reviews are in.
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Well, I’ve seen this film and the answer is no. At least, not in my opinion – and that has plenty to do with star Rami Malek, but I’ll get to him.
Full disclosure: I do not identify as bisexual. I’m not directly affected by HIV and AIDS. I expect the same goes for many reviewing this film. I can’t speak for a universal interpretation of the film and can only give my own.
But I, personally, was very happy with the representation of Freddie’s non-heterosexuality in this bright, boisterous biopic. I was also satisfied by the depiction of his declining health and the aftermath of his ultimate AIDS diagnosis. (An interaction with a very sick fan right after he learns the news is especially poignant).
‘Bohemian Rhapsody will play its part to raise awareness and reduce stigma around HIV and AIDS’
Indeed, I balled my eyes out at the scene where Freddie discloses his HIV status to bandmates Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. (They’re played with charming, awkward humor across the board by actors Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazello). It’s the emotional heart of the film.
That said, the wider HIV and AIDS epidemic is not explored extensively. And the decision to conclude this tale with the band’s career-defining LIVE AID performance in 1985, and not Freddie’s death of bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS in 1991, will displease some. But for me this feels natural and right.
Conversely, Stephen Daldry’s 2018 staging of The Inheritance [currently playing in London’s Noel Coward Theatre] went into harrowing, gut-wrenching detail in its depiction of the epidemic. The end result is transcendent and moving. Bohemian Rhapsody is aiming for something else entirely. But it will play its part to raise awareness and reduce stigma.
‘It’s a rock biopic about the careers of four men – not just one’
For starters, it’s a rock biopic about the careers of four men – not just one. That’s very ambitious. Viewers are given an insight into the creation of many of Queen’s most notable songs. The birth of the contagious riff of Another One Bites the Dust; the hilarious story behind Bohemian Rhapsody B-side I’m In Love With My Car.
May and Taylor served as creative consultants, so we can only hope these stories are somewhat true to life, if overblown. But then, that’s what Queen was all about, right?
Like their seminal album Night At the Opera, this movie is an emotional symphony. It trades in tragedy, romance, joy. Sometimes, utter silliness. Mike Myers gets the most laughs as the wiley EMI music caricature who misunderstands what made the band special in the early days.
‘His attraction to men burgeons while on tour’
Also, it’s truly epic in scale. It begins way back with Freddie working as a Heathrow Airport baggage handler in the 60s. Then, it’s a whistle-stop reimagining of the most seminal relationships and moments in his life. Particularly with his family and his bandmates, whose own stories are also present, but secondary.
Closely examined, meanwhile, is Freddie’s lovelife. I’d dare say it’s one of the reasons for the film’s overlong 135 minute running time. Positioned as the most significant is his relationship with Mary Austin (played sweetly by Lucy Boynton). But then, it spanned decades. It’s shown to evolve from romantic and sexual to something else entirely.
After his attraction to men burgeons while on tour, Freddie discusses his sexuality with his fiance. Her maddeningly ignorant reaction (‘Freddie, you’re gay’) presents knowingly rudimentary dialogue. But how can anyone know what went down other than Mary Austin herself, who reportedly lives in Freddie’s London mansion to this day?
‘The real sense edge and otherness is right there in Rami Malek’s performance’
Meanwhile, his longtime manager and best friend Paul Prenter, who eventually betrays him, is portrayed as both sexy and slimy by Allen Leech. There’s plenty of ambiguous tension between him and Malek.
Guys/hangers on seem to come and go. None are characterized. But I got a feel for Freddie’s love of sex without being shown it. He eventually finds the connection he needs in humble hairdresser Jim Hutton, played by an adorably beary Aaron McCusker. They meet after McCusker caters for one of Mercury’s legendary parties. Years and an odyssey through the Yellow Pages later, their cute reunion is a pre-climax to Live Aid.
Plot points inject a safe kind of queerness. But the real sense of edge and otherness – that feeling that Freddie was one of us; that he was never really straight-presenting – is there in Rami Malek’s delightfully weird performance.
His movements, his facial expressions, his speaking voice, his singing: he evokes Freddie with every breath. It’s one of the all-time great performances where overstatement meets imitation. Think Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, but the opposite. Oscar-worthy wardrobe work elevates the effect.
The overall result is pretty wondrous, and I don’t even like Queen’s music. Don’t get me wrong: I would have loved to see a queered up 18-rated version of this film. But less has been sacrificed here than you might think.
Bohemian Rhapsody hits UK cinemas tomorrow and US cinemas on 2 November