So, after years in development hell, Bohemian Rhapsody, the film about the band Queen (with a focus on lead singer Freddie Mercury), is finally hitting cinemas this Autumn.
As the trailer was unveiled for the first time this week, there were some inevitable criticisms. One of the main criticisms doing the rounds included a link to a year-old article on whether or not the film would cover the AIDS crisis (which Freddie Mercury ultimately fell victim to in 1991). This criticism has been intermingled with accusations of ‘straight-washing’ – people asserting that Freddie’s main love interests will be women, although I’m uncertain whether this has come from actual on-set reports or from the trailer itself (which does indeed show him mainly with a woman).
Now, I’ve had several feelings bubbling inside me as I watched these criticism play out. I’ve had concerns about this film for the many, many years that it has been on the cards. I was so unbelievably ready to hate on this film – from hearing that Roger and Brian’s initial plan was to have the second half of the film occur after Freddie’s death, to the decision to momentarily cast very white Ben Whishaw as not-white Freddie (real name Farrokh Bulsara, he was of Parsi descent, born in Zanzibar, educated in India, and moved to England as a teen), I was ready to hate anything that emerged from this project.
But, astoundingly even to myself, I find myself both excited for the film and bristling at some of the criticisms, and desperate to pass comment on where some of them are, I feel, really missing the mark.
I understand that some of these frustration come from the fact that most people won’t have quite the same ‘special’ interest in Freddie, and Queen, as I do. Having known Queen’s music from birth (thank my dad for that), I was obsessed with Freddie and his music (with Queen and solo) throughout my teens. I spent hours listening to his albums, watching his performances, and devouring every book I could find about his life and work. Freddie had died three months before I was born, and so he became an elusive idol to me – it saddened me that I would never walk the same earth at the same time as him, so I got as close as I otherwise could. The older I got, the more compelling I found him – especially with all his insecurities and flaws – and ended up getting an image from the 1986 Magic Tour as my first (and still biggest) tattoo.
So it’s fair to say that I have a lot of feelings about this trailer and about people’s criticisms.
Firstly, I need to stress the importance of the fact that an actual man of colour has been cast in the role of Freddie. I had consigned myself to the fact that we were going to get a whitewashed Freddie – and no one could have bribed me to to see that. But now that we have Rami Malek in the role, I think it’s incredibly important to support the film on that fact alone (plus the fact that I think Rami is perfect for the role). A film with a bisexual man of colour as its lead is not something you see very often, and I want it to succeed.
In terms of the criticism of how the film will portray his love interests -the accusations that he is being ‘straight-washed ‘ – I feel a slight twinge of unease every time I see them. I can’t help but wonder whether these people are upset that he is being shown with a female love interest at all.
My fear, when the film was announced, was that this flamboyantly bisexual man was actually going to be ‘gay-washed’ – that his bisexuality was going to be erased – as many people think of him only as a gay icon. I myself didn’t realise Freddie wasn’t gay until I was in my late teens, past the point where my baby-bi self was starving for a role model.
The truth of the matter is that, for a large portion of the period this film seems to cover, Freddie was in a long term, committed relationship with a woman; he called Mary his ‘common law wife’, and, even when their relationship ended, he adored her and made her the main benefactor of his will. For the film to not focus on their relationship in favour of showing him with men would have been the true erasure of his bisexuality.
Besides the fact that, in the trailer alone, we see Freddie with a man, with someone who I think could be Jim (who he was in a long term relationship with up until his death), a scene in which he appears to be checking out a man and a woman at the same time, and can see that the film absolutely definitely depicts the legendary 39th birthday party that was featured in the music video for his solo song Living On My Own (which is, in my opinion, a contender for the queerest thing to happen on this Earth). So, I’m not afraid that his queerness is going to be played down in the way people are suggesting.
It is not ‘straight-washing’ to depict Freddie in relationships with women. But it is bi-erasure to rewrite those women out of his life.
From my (several) viewings of the trailer, and from pulling all those old creative writing seminars from the dusty depths of my brain, I believe the film is going to climax with Queen’s 1985 performance at Live Aid (or perhaps the 1986 Magic Tour performance at Wembley, but this makes less narrative sense to me). From a purely creative perspective, it sits the most comfortably; before the concert, Queen were seen as past their prime, on the verge of retirement, and no longer relevant – to have the film end with Freddie pulling out one of the greatest performances in history, proving everyone wrong, would be the perfect ending of a tribute to his life and work.
But this would, as criticisms have pointed out, cut out any chance of depicting his battle with AIDS.
In terms of any creative decisions regarding depicting the AIDS crisis, I have to admit that I have a heavy bias. I have no desire to watch Freddie, even played by someone else, sicken so painfully as I know he did in those final few years. I struggle to watch the music video for These Are The Days Of Our Lives, and can barely make it through a single listen to The Show Must Go On.
I would, of course, be full of criticism if they didn’t mention it at all (Freddie spoke about his terror in the face of the epidemic, talking about how he would try to ‘scrub’ the virus off himself in the shower after having sex with someone). As for those final, awful years though? As important as his death was in terms of the AIDS crisis, I’d rather watch him live.
Here in internet-land, we have a tendency to gather into a bit of a hive-mind, particularly when it comes to criticising upcoming media. And that’s a good thing, when the basis is solid: when the autistic community comes together against the likes of To Siri With Love, for example, it’s provides an amazing power against an oppressive culture. But then you also get the backlash against films like Love, Simon – because the original author is a straight woman and it’s ‘just another film about a white boy’ – and I find myself frantically telling people to give it a chance because it’s important, because the entire story is shaped around the stories of young queer people the author worked with, and that there’s so much more to it than just another white gay boy.
Sometimes, we hold things to such a standard of purity that we do more harm than good. Films can be deeply imperfect, but still important and in need of, I think, our support. And I feel the same way about this film – a film about a bisexual man of colour, actually played by a man of colour, who was also the biggest rockstar of his age.
When I see some of these criticisms, I am reminded of something that made my head hit the ceiling with rage. In a documentary about Freddie, someone commented on how disappointing it was that he never came out publicly, either about his sexuality or, later on, about the fact he had AIDS (he only publicly confirmed it the day before he died). As if, because he existed as a public figure, and it would have no doubt helped people, he had a civic duty to disclose these things regardless of what he wanted.
I think people get so caught up in the idea of Freddie as a queer icon, as a figure of great importance in terms of HIV and AIDS awareness , that they forget that, fundamentally, he was a very flawed, very private, very complicated man with many facets to his life. And would be an injustice for this film not to show that.
That’s why I’m giving this film a chance. I’m ready to tear it down if I have to. But I’m giving it a chance. I think it deserves it.
And now that I have expunged these feelings, check out my awesome Freddie Mercury tattoo: