The 70’s nostalgia penetrating the consciousness of popular media today is evident, with the Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), garnering Oscar renown and Elton John’s own upcoming Rocketman. Queen’s discography, along with other 70’s icons such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop, are favorite jams for both young and old. Bohemian Rhapsody’s surreal and stirring musicality goes down in history, with one of the most recognizable verses that will always garner people’s voices. We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions are also loved – naming Queen’s masterpieces will just be an account of their whole discography. Behind such icons lie geniuses, and it is only human nature to want to decipher and understand, to recognize what makes them so great. Perhaps this is among the reasons why the 2018 biopic amassed the attention and love of many. However, of course, this kind of attention did not come without critique. So, who is the Freddie Mercury that the film depicts and who is the Freddie Mercury of his time?
“I am a romantic, but I do put up a barrier around myself, so it is hard for people to get in and know the real me.”
While the film is a celebration of Queen and Mercury’s life, I believe the portrayal of his personal life, particularly his sexuality, as questionable. It is easy to say that his musical influence so incredible that it supersedes whatever supposed “tragedy” that the musician faced, and that private and public sphere can be meaningfully separated. But being such a public figure, a rock star at that, the Mercury’s personality, informed by his personal life, is an integral aspect of the fascination with the musician and the band. The film’s unfortunate portrayal of Mercury’s private affairs sells the man short.
“When I’m dead, I want to be remembered as a musician of some worth and substance.”
Reductive portrayal of Mercury’s queerness, choosing to focus on the tragedy of being a queer rock star instead of mentioning how his queer identity informed much of the band’s musical distinctiveness. This is not to say that queerness is a commodity to be marketed. It is simply an acknowledgement of Mercury’s fearless and audacious artistic liberty. While talks of his sexuality swirled during his time, Mercury essentially hid in plain sight. His queer sentiments were evident in the unapologetic eccentricity of his style and music, canonizing the band’s iconic caliber. One can’t help but to think of the time when Mercury commands the stage in a kimono, stripping it off as he sings Hey Big Spender. It was a time when there was a kind of inability to discern what was right before people’s eyes, because of the seeming impossibility of a rock star to be anything but straight. Instead, the film portrays Mercury’s identity as an isolating force; and while it may have been at a time where sexual liberties were definitely hegemonized, the approach did not help the vilification of queerness. The film brings to light Mercury’s sentiments that he did not want to be seen as a mere “cautionary tale”, who himself said that he did not “want people buying [their] fucking records out of sympathy”, but the biopic seems to do exactly that. Without an acknowledgement of the affirmative influence of Mercury’s identity, the evils of queerness is inevitably accentuated.
The hedonic life that Mercury was portrayed to be fixated with is arguably reductive, not to mention the erasure of his bisexuality. There is little acknowledgement of Mercury’s bisexuality, with Mary Austin shooting his admission down with a pitying and cold disregard: “Oh Freddie, you’re gay”. On top of the problematic implication that being homosexual is worse than being bisexual, this exchange brings to light society’s sheer disregard and disrespect of sexual identities. When one’s sexuality is not being condemned, it is being erased and another sexual identity is forced upon them.
“I want to break free
I want to break free from your lies”
This is where the detractors who claim that Mercury’s sexuality is not an important aspect of the biopic, defending that it did not matter whether he came across as homosexual or bisexual, fall short. Not only does it seem ironic that these people are choosing to ignore what the film makes out to be a defining conflict in the storytelling (his sexuality and love for excess that alienates him from people), they commit the same error that people during Mercury’s time did. His sexual orientation was forced to be concealed, echoing the sentiments that some of the people have now, that his bisexuality does not matter in the film. The acknowledgement of his sexuality is important, and there is no better time to do so than in the evolving and affirmative climate of the present. It feels like a wasted opportunity, erasing Mercury’s bisexuality while also (albeit perhaps unintentionally) propagating the vilification of queerness.
“So what if I am?”
In response to a question if Mercury was gay
Obviously, a 2-hour biopic cannot penetrate a man’s life – the film merely scratches the surface of Mercury’s person and portrays only the silhouette of Queen’s mark on contemporary culture. Just as Queen changed the face of rock, so did Mercury change the face of AIDS. Being one of the most prominent figures whose life was taken by the disease, his death brought an increased awareness of HIV/AIDS, which at the time of his death in 1991 was the second-leading cause of death among young men in the US. Further, his band members Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon set up The Mercury Phoenix Trust, to raise awareness and fund AIDS research. Mercury is an important figure in AIDS history, but this is undervalued with the film’s simplistic portrayal of his relationships and sexuality.
“My soul has painted like the wings of butterflies… I can fly, my friends” – Mercury
The rekindled 70s nostalgia at present is fertile soil for the celebration of the cultural impacts of influential figures, particularly for matters that at their time were exiled. Freddie Mercury was a genius, whose whole identity saturated the surreal distinctiveness of the band. It becomes clear the Freddie Mercury we can truly know will simply be a silhouette of his unapologetic and audacious character. But his cultural influence, penetrating the psyche of even the contemporary society today, is so profound, that the sense of awe that one gets with Mercury is accompanied by an unexplainable feeling of familiarity. Queen and Mercury will forever be “a kind of magic” that changed, and is, dare I say still changing, the face of music.