Ten years ago, as I was interviewing a close confidante of Freddie Mercury, his phone rang. I was working on a literary biography about the late singer and his friend was kind enough to offer me important insights. But Queen Productions, the company that controls everything to do with the group, was not happy to hear someone was working on a project not authorised by them. Happily for me he ignored them and we continued our conversation.
But as we approach the 27th anniversary of Freddie Mercury's death, Bohemian Rhapsody, the film billed as a celebration of the singer, is a depressing demonstration of surviving band members' control over Mercury's legacy and memory. Queen expired alongside its lead singer and artistic visionary in 1991. Queen Productions, the corporate zombie, lumbers on.
Bryan Singer’s movie claims to retrace the life and spectacular rise of Freddie Mercury and Queen, but fails to meet even the minimum factual or ethical standards one should expect from such a project. This is particularly disappointing given Mercury’s importance as a leading popular culture artist.
This production, endlessly revised and postponed over the last decade, was co-produced by two surviving members of the band: Brian May (guitarist) and Roger Taylor(drummer). John Deacon (the bassist) preferred to retire shortly after the singer's death in November 1991, and detach himself from (almost) any Queen projects.
At this distance, it’s worth remembering Queen’s critical ups and downs. First favoured by an elitist audience, later, when the band enjoyed global popularity on an unprecedented scale, they fell out of favour with critics who once lionised them.
Many of the same critics, who are quick with superlatives today, back then did not appreciate Queen’s ingenious combination of music and spectacular production. Without Mercury, Queen would have been just another British rock band. With him, they were a confluence of progressive rock and opera, lyricism and theatricality.
Queen's front man was also one of its main songwriters, allowing the band to clock up a massive run of hits: Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen, Love of My Life, Somebody to Love, We are the Champions, Don't Stop Me Now, Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
But the biopic, instead of celebrating this, comes across as a sort of score-settling by surviving band-mates. There are too many artistic liberties - or downright distortions - to mention but, taken together, they reinvent reality.
Rami Malek's Freddie Mercury is almost embarrassed by his homosexuality.
A concert Queen gave in Rio in 1985 is shifted to 1977, no doubt surprising the 300,000 concert goers who attended. The band's hit We Will Rock You is, in the film, released five years after it appeared. None of these changes would matter if it served a noble artistic purpose.
But the movie has another agenda: a succession of anachronisms, parachronisms or metachronisms underpinned by a latent homophobic dramaturgy. Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury is almost embarrassed by his homosexuality. His Mercury is often portrayed as hesitant, melancholic and moody, in contrast to the actual artist as he appeared to his audience and the media and the man experienced and remembered by his closest friends.
The real Mercury was determined and uncompromising vis-à-vis himself, with an incredible sense of humour and self-irony: bright as Apollo, excessive as Dionysus.
The man in this fiction is crippled by remorse for acknowledging his homosexuality and discarding his heterosexual facade with the woman he always described as being the love of his life, Marie Austin. Queen's musical journey and the worldwide conquest are now slaves to a heteronormative vision that has been made fit, retroactively, to the lifestyles and sensibilities of the other three members of Queen.
Early on it becomes a "confession" film, following a model the French philosopher Michel Foucault recognised as participating in the creation of "an abusive guilt, something alienating and offering control over the confessed by a normative culture".
In the movie Freddie Mercury almost appears as someone asking for forgiveness for being what he is. Like the real singer, screen Freddie also desires men but, in doing so, he “sins”. He does not understand, as a sequence in the film shows, that another member of the band (Taylor) does not have enough time for carousing because he has a family, a woman and children for whom he feels responsible. Screen Freddie lived out a sexuality that his time still considered mostly as deviant. This homosexuality, in the movie, leads him to make wrong choices, to damn his soul and come under evil influences.
By moving away from his “mother house,” portrayed here as a self-inflicted exile or banishment, the film shows an impressionable, almost weak-kneed Freddie Mercury sinking into the gay underworld of London, New York or Munich, eventually contracting an unknown virus - a stigmatising “gay cancer” - that will eventually kill him, as it killed over 30 million people since 1981.
Mercury’s excesses - drugs, alcohol, illness and physical and psychological assaults attributed to him - are all linked to his homosexual “distraction” which caused the other band members great suffering.
So too his heartless decision to abandon the pure, patient, almost virginal Mary Austin, projected through a patriarchal lens that objectifies the woman. This reaches a laughable low when Mercury is shown living alone in his London mansion, sending lamp signals to the woman of his life to keep her under his tyrannical control.
Airbrushed out entirely are the people who became his second family in this period: Dave Clark, David Evans, Joe Fannelli, Peter Freestone, David Minns, Peter Straker and Barbara Valentine from Munich (a former film icon who played in several productions by Rainer Werner Fassbinder). The only person who remains is Jim Hutton, one of his last lovers, presented often as a staff member. But it was Hutton, who died in 2010, who decided to avoid conflict with Mercury's conservative Persian Indian parents by pretending to be what he effectively became later: the singer's gardener.
The script takes the same liberties with the band’s recording career as with Mercury’s private life. The May-Taylor film suggests Mercury was the only one distancing himself from Queen, betraying them for a $3 million solo deal with CBS. Many moviegoers may be surprised to know that Mercury took on solo projects only after solo albums from Taylor (Fun in Space, 1981 and Strange Frontier in 1984), and Brian May (notably the Star Fleet Project in 1983).
The falsification of reality reaches a troubling low point against the backdrop of Bob Geldof’s Live Aid concert. We don’t know if Mercury’s health was already suffering in 1985, though a mysterious illness saw him halt touring after the European Magic Tour a year later. Jim Hutton and Peter Freestone, his former PA, are on the record as saying Mercury only took a HIV test in the first half of 1987. Unlike the movie portrayal, he did not confess his illness during the Live Aid rehearsals.
Bohemian Rhapsody, with its unconscious homophobic bias, in no way pays tribute to its principal figure. Instead two former Queen members have taken a neo-colonial knife to the memory of a child of immigrants who became the quintessential British rocker. During his lifetime Freddie Mercury was made feel humiliation because of his homosexuality. In his final months he faced an aggressive reaction to his illness lead by the tabloid media.
Today his life is projected through a heteronormative lens that distorts a life of artistic achievement into a barely-concealed, shameful act of posthumous revenge.
Bohemian Rhapsody is many things. Fastidious and precise it’s not. And its Freddie Mercury - more self-loathing “queer” than killer queen - is painful to watch.
Selim Rauer is a writer and research in French and Francophone contemporary literature at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Freddie Mercury, published by Fayard in 2008 and reprinted on the occasion of Bohemian Rhapsody.