Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: actor Rami Malek did a great job as Freddie Mercury. While I obviously never met the Queen frontman myself, the version put forth by the 37 year old actor was a sensitive, inquisitive, funny, inventive, and ultimately kind portrayal of a man known for a larger than life personality and heart. This movie has been in the works for over a decade, and like many others, I was saddened when Sacha Baron Cohen, the actor initially conscripted to play Mercury, dropped out. Not only did he look the part perfectly, the funnyman’s deep intelligence and natural flamboyance would have perfectly channeled the late singer. So while it was too bad that Baron Cohen could not take on the role, Rami Malek truly made the part his own. The real cracks in the film start to show when we begin to examine exactly why Sacha Baron Cohen left the project: he felt that the way the remaining members of Queen wanted to handle the story was disrespectful to Mercury’s memory. The producers of the film chalked it up to “creative differences” and ploughed on with the project.
Here’s what happens in the first half of the movie: you have a really straightforward meet-cute where the original members of Queen meet with a cocky young Mercury in a parking lot, where he belts out one of their songs and informs them that he will consider joining their band. Then, through what feels like a fast-forward feature on an old VCR, we are treated to various bar, stadium, and record office scenes. These show the viewers that yes, Queen’s star did progressively shine brighter and brighter.
There are also various cute scenes where the band jams around and reveals that (alas and alack!) the big meanies at the record company never wanted to release Bohemian Rhapsody as a single! At this point, Freddie Mercury stylishly storms out and throws a rock through the window of the office, telling all the weirdos (!) and freaks (!) in the audience that if they hold fast to their vision and commit some mild vandalism, they too can be international superstars. As their star glows ever brighter, we also see the Mercury character face deep opposition to his fanciful music career from his Stern Ethnic Parentstm who seem to think that dumping on his dream will convince him to become a lawyer! Malek’s Mercury also compliments a shopgirl named Mary on her coat (clear lazy Gay Foreshadowing if I ever saw it) and proceeds to fall madly in love with her, leading to an eventual proposal and then marriage. This happy hetero coupling takes up the first half of the movie, and is very nauseatingly wholesome.
A wrench throws itself into the cog of all this legally/godly sanctioned missionary sex though: the more Queen tours, the more Freddie Mercury’s character is lead to the accursed homosexual way. Everywhere he goes, some swarthy trucker eyes him up and down outside of a truckstop bathroom, or some pretty boy looks too long at his lips. Tempted by the fruit of someone’s brother, Mercury rushes home to Mary to tell her, “I think I’m bisexual,” to which she (obviously an oracle of some magic who can divine the true lustings of his dong better than he can) replies, “No Freddie, you’re gay.” They break up on the spot, Mercury rocked by the revelation that he has been faking orgasms with women for years. In fact, he would continue to fake orgasms with women (interspersed with his male lovers) for the rest of his life in a naive attempt to prove her wrong! Bisexuality doesn’t exist, thank god for Oracle Mary.
This is where everything begins to go haywire for the film, portraying Freddie Mercury and the remaining members of Queen as a tight little family unit, previous to the revelation of his sexual proclivities towards men. The fellow members of Queen, the narrative implies, are the gatekeepers of the true heterosexual morality, and deign to bestow their kind tolerance on their freaky creative friend. They sure do put up with a lot for a couple of good tunes! The dynamic of the band members in the film is really just a bunch of dudes shitting on Freddie Mercury for being weird, while they wait for him to crap out the genius music they put up with him for. Dance weirdo dance! But lest we forget, the other guys also helped write the songs! The lesser knowns of Queen, Whatshisface, Whoshisname, and Whatchamacallit, really want you to know that they also helped write the songs.
In one scene, Mercury is late because he is out doing gay drunk sin, and the three downtrodden and abandoned members somehow find the will to carry on and stomp on a box to create the beat of “We Will Rock You.” They also enlist “the wives” to stomp on the box with them, so committed were they to fostering female creativity in the heydeys of the 70’s. ( I say “the wives” as their spouses are never actually named in the film, and are instead shuttled about like a many-bodied hive mind of polyester, poofy hair and motherly concern.) At the end of the scene, Mercury staggers in and all the straights, obviously jealous, yell at him for being a drunk and horny rockstar. They threaten to boot him out of the band, but he performs the trick that makes him loveable and spits out some lyrics to their song. Hurrah! A hit.
While the rest of the band is busy making concerned faces and babies, Mercury and his scheming, evil, gay manager head off to gay bars. Mercury, upon finding other queer people and feeling comfortable with himself for the first time, does not look happy, relieved, and flirtatious. Rather, the Mercury of the film looks as though he is gazing into the void of his own destruction. A news report on a television reminds us that AIDS is about, punishing the gay men of the world! Freddie bravely steels his brow and continues to soldier forth into his world of bad gay sin. In one scene, he throws a lavish birthday party for himself, while all the other members of Queen share looks of abject horror and moralize at him for enjoying his birthday, and then pack up their wives and storm out! It seems for the members of Queen, that one of the chief benefits of outliving Mercury is being able to write out their own rockstar behaviour in retrospect. Dead men tell no tales!
One of the chief reasons that Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out of the picture is because he didn’t agree with how the members of Queen wanted to frame the narrative. In an interview with the Guardian, the actor revealed that the movie they wanted to make would be different than other band movies because of the amazing middle twist: “And I go: ‘What happens in the middle of the movie?’ He goes: ‘You know, Freddie dies.’ … I go: ‘What happens in the second half of the movie?’ He goes: ‘We see how the band carries on from strength to strength.’ I said: ‘Listen, not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you see how the band carries on.’”
That the remaining members of Queen (Whatshisface, Whoshisname, and Whatchamacallit) were actually delusional enough to think anyone cared about the band beyond Freddie Mercury is as pathetic as it is problematic. The notion that they could frame the untimely death of one of the most talented and well-known rock vocalists of all time as just something that the band and the film “carries on” from is dangerously disrespectful to their fans and the memory of their friend.
Regretfully, what they actually do with the ending is much worse: they use Freddie Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis to spin a cautionary morality tale about the dangers of lavish sex and gayness. In the film, Mercury is beseeched by Mary (who remained his best friend throughout his life until his end) to cease his wanton behaviour! He does so, and casts out his treacherous manager, who has been supplying him with smooth leather-adorned men and everest-sized mountains of coke. He remains alone, however, having selfishly decided to make a solo album. It is only when he gets his inevitable AIDS diagnosis and realizes the full villainy of his free-living lifestyle that he is able to humble himself sufficiently to return to the band.
There, they all give him pitying looks and hugs as they all decide to do their now-famous set at Live Aid to somehow redeem Mercury. As evidence that he is now safely back into the fold of monogamy and responsible living, Mercury picks up a long term boyfriend on the way to the show and swings by his parents’ Stern Ethnic Household to come out and tell them that he is thankful for all of their parenting. Then, the Live Aid set occurs and Mary, her husband, and the brand new longterm boyfriend all show up to signify that the evil of gay parties has been vanquished, and now Mercury will live out his days in tea-sipping monogamy. The credits then inform us that Mercury eventually ends up gracefully dying of AIDS as a final act of repentance for his lifetime of lavish gayness (definitely not bisexuality, which is not a thing).
I just don’t understand why Freddie Mercury’s life had to be spun as a tragedy. In reality, Mercury was a lovely and loving man whose parents were anything but disapproving. Frequent attenders of Queen’s shows, they had enthusiastically supported his musical efforts his whole life by paying for lessons and driving him to gigs. And while he did break up with Mary, he referred to her as his platonic common-law wife throughout his life, who was present and excited about many of his various parties and adventures. When Freddie Mercury went to do a solo album it wasn’t a big deal, because the drummer (Whatshisface) had already done two solo projects of his own. Mercury met his partner at a gay bar, not as a member of his hired help. And lastly, Mercury had no idea he had AIDS at the time of Live Aid, he found out a few months later.
These misrepresentations in the name of narrative do nothing but betray the history of the very man the audience of fans wanted to see honoured. It seems that because he died young, and of an illness that disproportionately affects the marginalized, we are expected to turn against how he chose to live his life. Look, the movie seems to say, if Mercury had been less himself, more like those other guys, he might still be singing songs for us. This is his fault. In reality, had he been more straight, more conventional, and less risk-taking, he wouldn’t have had the capacity to go out on an emotional limb to bare his heart for the world, and give selflessly of his enormous gift.
This movie fails to celebrate Mercury’s life on the terms of how he lived it. He laughed longer and sang with more heart than anyone of his era. To write his story as though he was depraved and misguided, is to completely defy the evidence of the man’s extraordinary intelligence, and want for the extravagances of what life can offer for the brave and bold. Freddie Mercury lived how he wanted and needed to, with great love and joy. It’s a shame that the makers of this film couldn’t be bothered to honour that.