The film glosses over, perhaps even misrepresents, some of the most important aspects of Mercury’s life—his sexuality, his death from AIDS, and the symbology of the ’80s that both evoke.
The Queen-Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has polarized audiences and critics. IMDB.com reports an 8.4/10 audience score but only a 49/100 from its sister site metacritic.com. On rottentomatoes.com, 95% of audience users like the film, but the site’s aggregate critical grade is only 60% positive—barely a “fresh” rating (these numbers accurate as of November 4). As a film critic and a Queen fan, I see both perspectives.
The movie’s flaws outweigh its strengths. It uses the overly familiar beats of the stardom-destroys-the-star biopic, so much so that only underdeveloped parts of the film—Freddie’s relationship with his very traditional parents, for instance, or how “Can anybody find me somebody to love?” might well have been the most personally applicable lyric he ever sang—stand out. In the theater, I realized I was basically watching Oliver Stone’s The Doors with different music and more complicated sexuality. Movie biopic fans could easily name a dozen other movies that follow the same trajectory, which illustrates a flaw in the genre. When so many of the films’ real-life subjects lived and died similarly, it’s hard to make an original movie without ignoring reality—which this film also does.
If you know nothing about Queen, you might believe that their legendary Live Aid performance was some Last Hurrah. Yet Mercury and the band made new music for several years afterward, and Brian May and Roger Taylor still tour as Queen today. You might believe that Mercury was a selfish prick who nearly imploded the band with a solo-album money-grab, even though Roger Taylor, portrayed as so indignant in Bohemian Rhapsody, had already made his own solo records. And so on.
This is not to say the film is without merit. Rami Malek is almost as electric as Mercury himself in a performance that could well garner an Oscar nomination. The soundtrack, obviously, is stellar. And director Bryan Singer’s recreation of the band’s Live Aid set—called, by some music critics, the best rock and roll performance of all time—is so realistic and pulse-pounding it makes you forget the movie’s problems for a while. In fact, pretty much any time Singer shoots a performance scene, Bohemian Rhapsody soars.
Yet even these positives cannot ultimately erase the problems a storyteller faces when trying to cover so much time and so many events. In his scathing review, indiewire.com’s David Ehrlich writes, “More often than not, the film makes you feel like you’re watching a group of talented actors cos-play Queen’s Wikipedia page, all of them fudging the facts whenever they get too close to making these rock legends seem like real people.” He’s not wrong. As good as the actors are, the rush through two-plus decades of artistry and conflict feels like watching a dress rehearsal of a synopsis. Singer has made some solid, even excellent, films, but in this case, he is unable to escape the sheer gravitational pull of his source material.
Worse, the film glosses over, perhaps even misrepresents, some of the most important aspects of Mercury’s life—his sexuality, his death from AIDS, and the symbology of the ’80s that both evoke.
In her fiery rebuke of the film on laineygossip.com, Sarah Marrs argues, “Rhapsody VILIFIES [Mercury’s sexuality (all-caps from Marrs)]. Everything is fine when Freddie is with that nice Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), but every bad thing that happens later is because Freddie starts boning dudes.” She’s not wrong, either. Since the film was first screened for critics, it has sweltered under a critical firestorm accusing it of everything from glossing over Mercury’s sexuality to blaming him for his own demise. Marrs is one of many, many voices pointing out Freddie’s crucial late-life relationship with Jim Hutton is tacked on rather than explored; that his same-sex dalliances while married to Austin are always portrayed as sleazy and stereotypical (leather, restrooms, coke-filled clubs); that his coming out to his parents, from whom he is estranged because BUTTONED-UP CONSERVATISM vs ROCK AND ROLL, is somehow healed precisely when he comes out. Marrs is also not the only critic to use the word “punishing,” as if the movie, under the guise of celebrating him, wants to lambaste long-dead Freddie for his identity and his life choices.
All these issues trouble me, too—as a member of the LGBTQ community, as a critic, as a human being, and as a storyteller. In creative writing classes, I discourage my students from taking on too much—trying to cover too many characters and too many events taking place over too much time in too many places—given that every storytelling genre operates under space/word/time limitations.
Though it would have curtailed the God’s-eye view of Queen’s whole career and some of the stellar performance scenes, I wish Singer would have explored the story of a major rock star’s sexuality in an era that literally and—unlike the movie, overtly—punished it. Not that our own era doesn’t, but the 1980s were worse.
Bohemian Rhapsody portrays the off-stage Freddie Mercury as a flamboyant, stereotypical gay man. I did not know him personally, and both May and Taylor endorsed this story, so, for the sake of argument, let’s say that part is accurate. Shouldn’t we still ask why Freddie’s every same-sex encounter in the film happens clandestinely, in unsavory environs, with random strangers? Might it be related to toxic heteronormativity that drives all other kinds of sexuality into dark places where terrible things can happen to us, and how that view on sexuality was not only condoned but encouraged?
Shouldn’t we interrogate the moment when Freddie tells Mary he’s bisexual, and she says, “Freddie, you’re gay,” and from that moment on, he pretty much is? It is certainly possible that an individual might desperately wish not to be gay, given the continued dominance of compulsory heterosexuality. “I think I’m bisexual” has, for some of us, been a problematic but understandable waystation on the road to full selfhood as lesbian or gay. But, in 2018, we know such declarations of personhood must come from the person themselves. Some of us really are bisexual. Some of us are still figuring it out. No one gets to tell you who you are. No one gets to misgender you or force you into some sexual category. We get to do it ourselves, even if our declarations evolve over time. The film misses an opportunity to explore the complexities of Mary’s assumptions about her power to label Freddie and his seemingly meek acceptance of her power.
One scene portrays certain journalists demanding Mercury out himself and his health status. What does that suggest about toxic heteronormativity and rights to privacy?
Shouldn’t we wonder why a beloved star like Mercury felt the need to hide his true self from the world? How, even though he was English, his need might have been connected to the Reagan administration’s refusal to acknowledge AIDS, to act, to normalize its treatments, to disseminate information, to battle homophobia? To conservative Republicans’ assumptions, still in place today, that some lives are worth less than their own?
Even if we ignore the film’s arguably homophobic portrayal of LGBTQ relationships, it’s hard not to see there are more specific, focused, important stories about Queen and Mercury. An exploration of how Mercury’s sexuality juxtaposed with 1980s mainstream values and whether anything has changed could make a really good film. Even though it would mean losing some of the great concert scenes, it’s a movie I would much rather have watched—something truly rhapsodic, even in its tragedy.
Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. Email him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.