There’s a scene in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ I keep coming back to, because it’s symbolic of the film’s problems, not just with its presentation of Queen, but of Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer and the greatest frontman of all time. (I’d say “arguably” but for me there’s no argument.) One night, Freddie Mercury (an extraordinary Rami Malek), missing the excitement of touring, throws a costume ball in his mansion. Dressed in an ermine cloak and a crown, he swings through the crowd, made up of men in various degrees of fabulous drag. The other members of Queen—lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello)—sit together, visibly uncomfortable. Freddie greets them rapturously, and one of them says stiffly, “This isn’t really our scene, Freddie.” Later that night, Freddie hits on a waiter named Jim (Aaron McCusker), who rebuffs him, saying, “Call me when you like yourself.”
Opening and closing with Queen’s triumphant performance at Live Aid in 1985, the film shows (sort of) the transformation of shy buck-toothed Farrokh Bulsara, the closeted son of Parsis parents, into the strutting swaggering Freddie Mercury. Freddie is shown approaching a band he likes backstage at a club in London. They just lost their lead singer, and Mercury has written a song he wants to show them. Next thing you know, he makes his debut with them, and, except for one catcall of “Paki,” Freddie and his flamboyant movements goes over really well. Biopics tend towards the “sensational,” making the mistake of thinking that the most interesting thing about James Brown, for example, is his personal life, when why we care about James Brown is his music. The artistic commentary in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ tends towards a knowing wink-wink at the audience. “Nobody wants to listen to a six-minute opera song with words like ‘Galileo’ in it!,” cries one record label executive (played by Mike Myers in a bit of meta-casting, calling up the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scene in ‘Wayne’s World.’)
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is bad in the way a lot of biopics are bad: it’s superficial, it avoids complexity, and the narrative has a connect-the-dots quality. This kind of badness, while annoying, is relatively benign. However, the attitude towards Mercury’s sexual expression is the opposite of benign. The tensions of being a gay man in the 1970s are not handled, or even addressed. Paul, manipulative, cunning, controlling, lures Mercury into the gay underworld of leather clubs and orgies, far away from the goodness, the wholesomeness, that is the rest of Queen. Prenter—who also died of AIDS in 1991—eventually gave very damaging interviews following his breakup with Mercury. But ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ shows no interest in contextualizing what Paul, a self-described “queer Catholic boy from North Belfast,” may have represented to the closeted Mercury, why Freddie was drawn to him. Maybe Freddie was sick of hanging out with his straight married friends and needed some “gay time.” Nobody knew AIDS was coming. The people in those clubs weren’t just biding their time in an orgy of self-loathing until a biblical plague was visited upon them. They were having a blast. A long-overdue blast. But you’d never know that from the film. “Bohemian Rhapsody” views Paul as a villain and AIDS as a punishment.
The film’s reluctance to deal with Mercury’s sexuality is catastrophic because his sexuality is so connected to the art of Queen that the two cannot be separated out. Refusing to acknowledge queerness as an artistic force—indeed, to point at it and suggest that this is where Mercury went astray—is a deep disservice to Mercury, to Queen, to Queen fans, and to potential Queen fans. Genius doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. Mercury was made up of all of the tensions and passions in his life: he loved Elvis, opera, music hall, costumes, Victorian England … and, yes, sex. Lots of it. Sexual expression equals liberation, and you can feel the exhilaration of that in Mercury’s once-in-a-generation voice. You cannot discuss Freddie Mercury without discussing the queer sensibility driving him, the queer context in which he operated. Or, you can try, as this film does, but you will fail.
The writer is a film critic