BWW Review: I Sometimes Wish BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY'd Never Been Born at All
I spent the months leading up to the release of "Bohemian Rhapsody" in a state of awed anxiety. The release of that first trailer triggered something in me--I cried every single time I watched it, and I think I watched it upwards of seven thousand times. I was utterly transfixed by the spectacle, by Rami Malek's uncanny resemblance to the man himself. Freddie Mercury: one of the first non-family voices I can remember recognizing distinctly, a singular talent, and a figure who has informed so much of what I care about and who I choose to be. The best singer to ever live, leading one of the greatest rock bands to ever arrive on the scene. An icon, not only for his talent, but for his identities: a non-white, non-heterosexual, non-Christian superstar who reinvented and mastered the game.
And from the moment where Malek's Freddie eyed an anonymous man heading into a gas station bathroom, inciting the whole movie theater audience to gasp, I knew this movie wasn't made for me.
This movie wasn't made for anybody who believes in the power and legacy of Freddie Mercury past his exceptional voice. This movie was made for straight, white, married people who bought Queen records in the 70s, rocked and rolled in their time, and voted Republican every year past the Carter administration. If you want a formulaic "here's a band and here's their music" story, if you want to look at Queen and its dearly departed frontman purely from a nostalgic frame of reference, I guess "Bohemian Rhapsody" is for you. If you want to listen to some of the greatest rock songs ever recorded and learn (sort of) how they came to be without thinking too hard about it, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is for you. If you think looking exactly like somebody is synonymous with good acting, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is for you.
For the rest of us, "Bohemian Rhapsody" reads like a two-hours-and-change movie trailer. We learn quick facts and figures, we jump around in time, we listen to some great music, and some credits roll. The moments of exposition are clunky and unnatural--in the (fictionalized) moment where Freddie joins what would soon be Queen, the prosthetic-toothed Malek announces that he's got a few extra incisors in his mouth, so he can sing in a larger range than most. It seems extremely unlikely to me that Freddie Mercury would walk around reciting the fun facts section of his future Wikipedia page. But I digress. A lazy, directly-on-top-of-the-nose script is the least of this movie's problems.
There were a lot of fears leading up to the release of "Bohemian Rhapsody" that the filmmakers would sanitize Mercury's life, that they would whitewash him, that they wouldn't deal with his queer identity. "Bohemian Rhapsody" does not whitewash, necessarily. His Parsee Indian parents and sister are major characters in the film. It also doesn't necessarily ignore his queer identity--he's shown in the film to have relationships with men and women, in accordance with his self-identified bisexuality.
But here's the problem: These identities of his are not given any honor. They're presented as obstacles--he gets called a bunch of slurs, and, IN SPITE OF those slurs, he is Freddie Mercury. He tells his long-time partner Mary Austin that he's bisexual. She tells him he's gay. He's never again shown to be attracted to women, which is a convenient lie (Mercury had several other public relationships with women after Austin). He makes eye contact with the male stranger at that gas station. He goes into seedy leather clubs, parties, and does lots of drugs. His non-hetero behaviors are coded as immoral and dirty and wrong and his "hetero" behaviors are invalidated by Mary's telling him that he's gay. Bisexuality is a real thing! It's how Mercury identified! And, yet again, it's shown as an obstacle, getting in the way of The People loving him.
There's another elephant in the room. The other major thing fans were afraid would be left out of the story: Mercury's diagnosis and subsequent death from AIDS-related complications.
Malek's performance is rightly lauded in this movie, but it's important to note that he's performing within the filmmakers' perception of Mercury, which seems to be: Freddie Mercury died because he was careless, debaucherous, and queer. He's the villain in his own story.
I can't believe this is something I have to say in 2018, but AIDS did not disproportionately affect men who had sex with men because they were dirty and negligent. It disproportionately affected men who had sex with men because of public misinformation and silences. Governments noticed a plague spreading through communities of queer men and turned a blind eye. There was not conclusive evidence that the HIV virus is spread through sexual fluids and blood until way too late--and, even when that information was available, it was not widely circulated or believed.
Freddie coughs up blood into a tissue (the lovely couple sitting next to me wondered aloud, "Did he die of tuberculosis?"). He sits in a doctor's office and tells the band that he's been diagnosed with AIDS. The movie tells us this is 1985, mere weeks before Queen's legendary performance at Live Aid.
In reality, Mercury was not diagnosed with HIV (not AIDS, HIV, which comes first and mutates into AIDS over time) until 1987. Two full years after Live Aid. The movie clearly moves up the diagnosis to insinuate that Queen gave the performance they did at Live Aid because Freddie knew he was going to die.
I just find that insulting, and antithetical to what the movie claims to put out. "Bohemian Rhapsody" keeps telling us that it wants us to see Freddie Mercury for the legend he was, warts and all, but does it really? It spends a lot of the time implicating him in his own addiction and sexual habits. It even falsifies the narrative of his life in order to show us "how" this man was able to give the best live rock performance of all time.
He didn't perform the way he did at Live Aid because he knew he was going to die. He gave that performance because he was a unique talent, and there were definitely other ways to make that dramatically interesting.
Freddie Mercury was a legend. It wasn't "in spite of" his bisexuality or his brownness or his illness. He is a legend. "Bohemian Rhapsody" spent too much time demonizing and undermining his identities for me to truly believe the filmmakers understand what Freddie Mercury and Queen were about.