Last night’s “feature” was Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 biopic of the rock band Queen and its lead singer, flamboyant Bisexual Freddie Mercury, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991. Bohemian Rhapsody was written by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan (they’re both credited with “story” and McCarten only with “screenplay”) and directed by … well, there’s an asterisk on that one because Bryan Singer receives sole credit but either was fired, quit or just stopped showing up (depending on which account you believe) for the final week of principal photography and another director, Dexter Fletcher, was brought in to finish the shoot and supervise post-production. With Bryan Singer subjected to allegations of sexual misconduct with underage boys and thereby subjected to the #MeToo witchhunt that also has claimed the career of another prominent Gay male filmmaker, actor/director Kevin Spacey (as I noted in my comments on the Elton John biopic Rocketman — which was directed by Dexter Fletcher and was pretty obviously green-lighted in the wake of the success of Bohemian Rhapsody — Spacey has become an Orwellian “unperson” in the film industry — “He does not exist. He never existed” — and so has Singer), it was Fletcher who got the career boost from this film’s success.
Bohemian Rhapsody eschews the gimmicky presentation of Rocketman (largely copied from Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea) and doesn’t show us Freddie Mercury as a boy interacting with the adult Freddie Mercury (played superbly in an Academy Award-winning performance by Rami Malek). Instead it’s a pretty straightforward VH-1 Behind the Music-style presentation of the Freddie Mercury Story — the other Queensters are relegated to supporting players, as they are in most tellings of the Queen story. (Even though the band’s guitarist, Brian May, played by Gwilym Lee with the same shock of long, curly hair as the real one, wrote half of Queen’s songs, including some of their biggest hits, he tends to get overlooked in Queen’s histories. It’s as if people writing about the Beatles claimed they were the late John Lennon’s band and ignored or slighted Paul McCartney simply because, unlike Lennon, he’s still alive.) Queen starts out as a band called Smile (their slogan is “Don’t Forget to SMILE”) whose lead singer, someone named Tim, walks out on the group just before Mercury — or, to use his original name, Farrokh Bulsara — shows up to see them and drafts himself as Tim’s replacement. (Whoever “Tim” might have been, I can’t help wondering if he’s gone through the rest of his life thinking of himself as the Pete Best of Queen.)
I’ve long suspected there was a strong influence from the Beach Boys on Queen — especially in the vocal harmonies when the band members sang together (the a cappella opening of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is pure Brian Wilson!) — and when I pointed this out to my husband Charles while we were watching the movie, he said, “The Beach Boys never wrote a song about murder and capital punishment,” to which I replied, “No, but if they had, this is what it would have sounded like!” Indeed, when I first heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which was not until the movie Wayne’s World came out in 1992) I thought, “This is what the Beach Boys’ unfinished album Smile would have sounded like if they’d finished it,” and so it wasn’t surprising that before the band was called Queen it was called Smile. I also had got Freddie Mercury’s true-life ethnicity wrong — I’d thought he was half-British and half-Turkish; he was really part of a Parsee (modern-day Zoroastrians) community that had fled Persia (modern-day Iran) when the Muslims took over and started persecuting the Parsees, gone to India until Hindus started persecuting them, and ended up on the African island of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) until the Muslims persecuted them (again!) and forced the Bulsaras to flee to London. According to Freddie Mercury’s Wikipedia page, Freddie was born in Zanzibar but his family moved to India, where “he attended English-style boarding schools in India from the age of eight and returned to Zanzibar after secondary school.” The Bulsaras finally fled Zanzibar after a 1964 revolution and settled in London when Freddie was 18.
There are the predictable (in a rock biopic) Jazz Singer-ish confrontations between Bulsara’s parents and the nascent Freddie Mercury (including one in which he comes home, announces that “Freddie Mercury” is his new name, and when one of his family members says, “That’s just a stage name,” he says, “Oh, no, I had it legally changed”), who insists on going out, hanging out at pubs, and ultimately meeting and falling in love with a white girl, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), whom he describes to her deaf-mute father as an “epic shag” (i.e., great in bed), thinking he can’t hear it. “He can read lips,” she tells him. I come somewhat back of scratch in evaluating a Queen biopic since I was never that a big fan of theirs — at least partly because they emerged in the mid-1970’s, when I was listening to almost no rock or currently popular music. That only changed when an old friend of mine from junior college introduced me to Bruce Springsteen and then I did a couple of semesters at the college radio station at San Francisco State University and got introduced to the punks, who to me (to paraphrase the Trump campaign slogan) made rock ’n’ roll great again. Once I discovered Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Nick Lowe and the Clash, I was hooked on rock again — though I remained (and still remain) a musical omnivore who will listen to, give a fair chance to and end up liking almost anything (though I draw the line at rap — most rap, anyway, because I find it aggressively ugly musically and hopelessly sordid lyrically — and much, though not all, of the collection of dance genres usually tabbed “EDM” — for Electronic Dance Music — today).
I did hear a few Queen songs I really liked, including their single “Bicycle Race” b/w “Fat-Bottomed Girls” (the latter appears in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody but quite a bit earlier in the story than Queen actually wrote and recorded it) and the nice bit of neo-rockabilly “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Also, as a huge fan of the Marx Brothers I couldn’t help but think that a group which named two successive albums after Marx Brothers movies, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, couldn’t be all bad. (Oddly, the McCarten-Morgan script for Bohemian Rhapsody shows them coming up with the name A Night at the Opera without any reference to its Marxian origins.) I also found myself resenting that after the Marx albums they put out a record called Jazz which had absolutely nothing to do with jazz. I admired Queen for being able to make radical changes in their style — which the movie depicts via an argument between them and a clueless EMI record executive, Ray Foster (Mike Myers), in which Foster tells them to stick to the commercially successful formula that has generated their first hits and they refuse — but often the changes seemed totally arbitrary, as if the band (particularly Mercury and May, their main songwriters) were simply throwing out anything in hopes of finding something that would stick commercially. It seems strange that in an argument between a band signed to EMI (Queen’s records were released on Elektra in the U.S. and EMI everywhere else in the world, though after Mercury’s death the band sold the U.S. rights to Walt Disney Corporation’s Hollywood Records label) and an EMI executive, neither party mentions the Beatles — EMI’s (indeed, anybody’s) most successful rock act of all time and another band that refused to follow standard rock conventions or stick to a successful formula. But the Beatles grew and changed as part of a consistent artistic progression, which I don’t think could be said of Queen.
The film makes a lot of the irony that when Queen finishes A Night at the Opera, turns in the master tape to EMI and insists that “Bohemian Rhapsody” be their next single even though it’s over six minutes long and the lyrics can best be described as abstract (“Galileo” 4x, “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, can you do the fandango?”), Foster is reluctant because, as he puts it in the movie, “We need a song teenagers can bang their heads to in a car. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is not that song” — the irony being that Myers, as co-writer and star of Wayne’s World, insisted on including a scene in that film in which teenagers bang their heads in a car to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (There’s also a nice line in which Foster — based on real-life EMI executive Ray Featherstone — tells Queen that their six-minute song “goes on forever,” and Mercury fires back, “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever.”) One thing I give Bohemian Rhapsody and its writers credit for is depicting Freddie Mercury’s sexuality relatively accurately — though the film is surprisingly circumspect in depicting actual sex between Mercury and either his girlfriends or his boyfriends, obviously in order to preserve the film’s chances at a PG-13 rating (which it got). It reminded me of Elton John’s comment on the imdb.com page for Rocketman that previous producers had approached him for the rights to his life story but had said they wanted to make it a PG-13 movie, to which he replied, “But I didn’t lead a PG-13 life.” Mercury’s first girlfriend, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), is clearly shown as the love of his life even though they break up sexually (but remain friends) when he comes out to her as Bi — though the film doesn’t depict the intense fling with a German actress he had while in Berlin making his solo album Mr. Bad Guy in the early 1980’s.
Mercury had a succession of more or less ongoing (but not exclusive) male lovers in the late 1970’s and the 1980’s, and one of my home-care clients looked up a YouTube video which documented that most of Mercury’s male partners of any seriousness themselves died of AIDS complications a few years after he did. This suggests that Mercury might have been following the line of thought of a lot of Gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic (a term that’s thrown around loosely and sometimes used as if it’s still going on: strictly speaking the AIDS epidemic — the period in which the numbers of people with the disease grew exponentially — lasted from 1981 to about 1992 and thereafter it became endemic) that people should let the HIV antibody test determine their marketplace for sexual partners, with HIV-positive men dating only other HIV-positive men. The video raised the question of why Mercury willed his entire estate to Mary Austin and gave only smaller (but still substantial) bequests to his boyfriends, but the boyfriends’ later fates suggest that he consciously thought, “My male lovers have the same disease I do and they won’t live much longer than me, while Mary will live a normal lifespan and be a much better heir for the long-term management of my estate.”
One part of the film that really rankled me was the decision of the filmmakers to have Queen effectively break up in the early 1980’s (which they didn’t; Mercury’s solo album was strictly a side project and he frequently broke off the recording of it to join Queen for record sessions and live shows) and reunite for the huge “Live Aid” concert on July 13, 1985, where Queen supposedly gave the greatest live performance by a rock band ever. Sorry, but that’s not how I remember Live Aid at all: I watched the entire concert on TV (and recorded it on audio cassettes from the simulcast on radio) and I didn’t think Queen’s set was all that great. The band on Live Aid that really knocked me out was U2, who did a two-song set of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and an extended version of “Bad,” and though “Bad” was cut off by technical glitches before it was quite over U2’s set struck me as the most powerful music of the day. I had never heard U2 before and instantly became a huge fan. I had heard Queen before and, as I noted above, I liked some of their music but never became a fan, and I suspect it was because of Bono’s intensity, power and commitment to causes greater than himself and his own fame (even though later Bono’s commitment to causes would get overdone, preachy and somewhat counterproductive), while Freddie Mercury seemed to be all about Freddie Mercury.
The film certainly does depict him that way; even before it portrays him as sexually active with men he acts like a screaming queen (one wonders if that, not the British monarch, was the real inspiration for the band’s name!) and a prima donna in more ways than one. Ironically, the spot Freddie Mercury did on Live Aid that impressed me most wasn’t any part of his performance with Queen; it was his solo voice-and-piano rendition of a song called “Is This the World We Created?” that not only fit in to the theme of Live Aid (raising money for famine relief in Africa) but seemed to be serious and moving in a way most of the Queen songs were not. Ironically, six years before Live Aid Queen had appeared in another benefit concert, The Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (a briefly-used alternative name for Cambodia), organized by Paul McCartney at the Hammersmith Odeon in December 1979. The two-LP set of recordings from this concert features excellent performance by 1960’s veterans McCartney (with the “Rockestra,” a large pickup band that also featured David Gilmour of Pink Floyd) and the Who along with heroes of the British New Wave like Elvis Costello, the Pretenders (though their main attraction was U.S.-born singer Chrissie Hynde), Rockpile (with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant joining them as guest artist for one song) and the Clash. Queen came on for one song, “Now I’m Here,” and it was by far the ugliest song on the album, a major bringdown in what was otherwise an excellent recording.
 — Kevin Spacey was relevant to Rocketman because that film blatantly and shamelessly copied key plot devices and gimmicks from the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, which Spacey directed, co-wrote and starred in: notably having the protagonist as a boy and the protagonist as an adult interact with each other in the same scenes.