When you’re gay and you go to the movies, you’re supposed to settle and be grateful for what you get.
A gay character reduced to stereotypes, used for tragedy porn, or relegated to set dressing with no backstory? Hey, at least he’s in the movie! A gay character is finally the lead of the film, but he’s played by a straight actor. That’s OK, at least the movie exists! There’s finally a movie with a beautiful, passionate love story, but the camera cuts away before the sex scene. Well, we should be happy to see the romance at all! There’s one sex scene, and it’s turned into the butt of a homophobic joke for the next 13 years. We have a sense of humor, too! Or the sex is finally realistic and erotic, but the movie is so small that no one sees it. No one but the gays themselves, that is—we always know where to find it!
And so we’re supposed to settle again, this time with the sanitized, mean-spirited, gay-shaming, and altogether lame biopic of Freddie Mercury, the late frontman of Queen and arguably one of the most important gay icons in pop culture ever. Bohemian Rhapsody is that disappointing. But the shot-for-shot, strut-for-strut recreation of Mercury’s legendary Live Aid performance, performed brilliantly by the film’s star, Rami Malek, is really cool. So I guess we’re supposed to be grateful for that—even though you can just watch the original set on YouTube.
The film plays fast and loose with facts in a way that suggests the entire project was born out of resentment from the surviving members of Queen that, all these years after Mercury’s death, the band’s legacy is still so married to their late frontman’s outsize voice, personality, and celebrity. Bohemian Rhapsody smells like cinematic retribution, in which Mercury is posthumously punished. That he’s depicted in such broad strokes is even crueler, with his sexuality reduced to a partying vice and the so-called nitty-gritty of his life fully ignored—a creative decision that led originally announced star Sacha Baron Cohen to dramatically drop out of the project.
There are many ways to approach how a celebrity is characterized in a biopic, which is especially true when the public figure’s sexuality was a behind-closed-doors secret for much of his career. But this approach borders on character assassination. Meanwhile, those other members of Queen come away seeming like mensches.
How the film would portray Mercury’s sexuality was always going to be a contentious issue. Mercury was never out to the general public, never spoke about his sexuality to the press, and there are conflicting remembrances about how open he was and to whom. He was with women. He was with men. When he died, however, he was in a relationship with Jim Hutton, who has spoken about their time together.
Bohemian Rhapsody first hints at Mercury’s bisexuality by showing him cruising at a rest stop. His next significant encounter with a man is with former manager Paul Prenter, almost cartoonishly depicted in the film as a predator who drags Mercury into a sordid partying lifestyle with his other gay friends. Those evil gays! They’ll ruin your life!
Then the screenplay rewrites history. Mercury reveals to his bandmates that he has AIDS while they’re rehearsing for their Live Aid performance. But Live Aid was in 1985. Mercury was diagnosed in 1987. Bohemian Rhapsody insinuates that it’s this tragic news and some sort of existential confrontation with his own mortality that motivates his triumphant Live Aid performance, a cruel and manipulative version of tragedy porn that is inaccurate and perpetuates the trope of AIDS as punishment for gay promiscuity.
His relationship with Hutton is written into the script as a framing device. He and Mercury first meet when the singer is depicted on a dark path of sex and drugs, and Hutton disapproves. But they meet again near the end of the film, when Mercury has had his AIDS-triggered come to Jesus. “Learned his lesson,” you might say. As Pier Dominguez wrote for BuzzFeed, the scenes depicting his relationship with Jim “[come] across as an attempt to redeem Mercury’s queerness with a ‘respectable’ partner.”
More, the antiquated condemnation that surrounded his gayness is confusing given how chaste his sex life and partying is depicted.
There’s a superficiality to all of it that we’d imagine Mercury would have been appalled by. Bohemian Rhapsody only glances at his racial identity and the complicated feelings and shame he had about that. It only glances at his sexual identity and the complicated feelings and shame he had about that. It only glances at his feelings about masculinity, his genius complex, his drug issues, his relationship to fame. None of these things are erased, but they’re also never dug into. It’s a surface-level treatment that insinuates that these things all had some negative effect on his life, or that he had only tortured feelings about them, which is hardly true at all.
Instead, Bohemian Rhapsody seems mostly concerned with depicting how cool and fun it is to be a rock star, and how bitter the surviving members of Queen seem to be that Freddie, in their view of events, took that away.
As such, it’s worth pointing out that the band’s former manager, Jim Beach, is a producer on the film. Members Brian May and Roger Taylor served as creative consultants, at one point in the process reportedly chasing Sacha Baron Cohen away with their execution of script approval in a way that shifted the attention to them and away from Mercury.
That’s important, considering all the ways that, as Mike Ryan laid out in his piece for Uproxx, the film “plays dirty pool” with Mercury’s legacy.
If you did not know that all the members of Queen contributed to writing the band’s songs, then Bohemian Rhapsody drills the point so hard you won’t soon forget it. That’s fine. Give credit where credit is due. It’s the foul tone and sanctimony behind how Mercury’s behavior is depicted that redirects the film toward revisionist propaganda.
Mercury’s hard-partying ways, recklessly and shamefully intertwined with his sex life and gay culture, are made out to be the downfall of the band. The rest of the members, meanwhile, are portrayed as upstanding family men who have no patience for such debauchery. “What pisses me off about it is that those three (to be fair, [John] Deacon didn’t have anything to do with the movie) are still around to offer this version of events while Freddie isn’t here to say, ‘Wait a minute, what about the time you did such and such,’” Ryan writes.
The last act of the film shows the band breaking up because Mercury makes the greedy decision to pursue a solo career. Here’s the thing, though. As Ryan writes, there is no record of the band ever breaking up. When Mercury’s solo career stalls, the movie shows him going back to the band with his tail between his legs, begging for them to reunite and play the Live Aid show. Again, not only is there no record of that happening, it also inexcusably omits the fact that Roger Taylor released two solo albums and Brian May released one before Mercury ever did.
It’s more celluloid chastising of Freddie Mercury.
Apparently the version of a Freddie Mercury biopic that Sacha Baron Cohen envisioned would have been “outrageous in terms of his homosexuality and outrageous in terms of endless naked scenes,” director Stephen Frears, who was at one time attached to the project, told Vulture. He posits that it’s the approach he “would imagine Freddie Mercury would have approved of.”
For whatever reasons Baron Cohen eventually left the project, it seems pretty unlikely that a major Hollywood studio would have ever made a movie that explicitly went that far. But there’s a version of Mercury’s story that exists somewhere between that pipe dream and Bohemian Rhapsody that is worth telling. Maybe one that even seems to actually like Freddie Mercury. Instead, here we are again, having to settle. Settle for this.