Oh, how I wanted to love this movie. Freddie Mercury was already an icon when I was growing up, and the embodiment of the ultimate Rock Star — not just an over-the-top showman in the same vein as so many 80s rockers, but a truly singular vocalist with a seemingly bottomless talent to back up his swaggering onstage persona. I vividly remember hearing his Live Aid performance coming from my dad’s den, and feeling compelled — even though I didn’t know who Queen was at the time — to stick my head in and say, “WHO is THAT?”
I was so looking forward to peeking behind the curtain and learning more about the man himself, and his life beyond the tabloid stuff about his “lifestyle”, AIDS diagnosis, and tragic death. But I have to say, despite Rami Malek’s exceptional performance as Mercury, I can’t endorse this movie as one I’d watch with my LGBTQ teen.
The screenplay plays a bit fast and loose with the timing of some key events in the evolution of Queen and in Mercury’s life, but that’s forgivable; after all, this isn’t a documentary, and biopics often compress or overemphasize life events for dramatic effect. My issue is with the treatment of Mercury’s sexuality.
While Mercury chose not to define his sexual preferences publicly during his lifetime, he’s been described by friends and various biographers as both “closeted gay” and bisexual. He had a long relationship with Mary Austin in his youth and continued to refer to her as “the love of my life” after their breakup; they maintained an extremely close bond until his death, and theirs is portrayed in the film as the central and defining relationship of his life. This despite the fact that Mercury’s last years were spent with Jim Hutton, who nursed him through the waning months of his illness.
Throughout the movie, I felt like Mercury’s sexuality was portrayed as something not only that he grappled to come to terms with, but struggled against. By foregrounding his longstanding close friendship with Mary, the movie implies that it was the only important relationship in his life. At one moment the script seems to me to imply pretty strongly that Mercury’s only regret in life was that he couldn’t give Mary the heteronormative marriage and family life that his bandmates enjoyed.
When he finally is shown as accepting his queerness and seeking out same-sex companionship, it’s portrayed as sordid, shallow, and empty — something he needs to be rescued from, by Mary. It’s only at the very very end of the film, after he’s been given his AIDS diagnosis, that we see Mercury seek out Jim Hutton and embark on a monogamous, healthy, gay relationship — a dramatic development that completely ignores the actual timeline of the events of Mercury’s life.
It’s by no means a bad movie and will surely fare well come awards season. But ultimately, I felt like the movie portrays Mercury’s sexuality as something negative, and for that reason I can’t endorse it as one to watch with an LGBTQ teen, unless you’re prepared to give plenty of context around Hollywood’s love affair with heteronormativity over accurate representation.
Update: Bohemian Rhapsody is now the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time and has so far picked up multiple awards including the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture: Drama and Best Actor for Rami Malek.