I didn’t want to write about Bohemian Rhapsody. I’m a Queen fan in same the way that basically everyone on the planet is a Queen fan, so I’m not overly invested. I am not the sort of person to get hung up on timelines being changed to create a narrative arc. I’m also not a musician, though the way it portrayed the actual making of music seemed pretty ridiculous. And I thought it was pretty smart of Singer/Fletcher/whoever to end it with a recreation of the Live Aid set, because obviously that’s a crowd pleaser. But I found myself yelling “and ALSO” alone in my apartment the whole weekend after I saw it, so here we are.
As I put it on Twitter, my primary problem – and the reason that upon reflection the film made me angry and not just dismissive – is that it could not see Mercury’s queerness as anything but tragic. I’d seen Making Montgomery Clift a few weeks earlier, which certainly helped put at top of mind how narratives about bisexual men can be warped to fit a preconceived idea of a tortured life, but I think it would have been a problem for me either way. It’s not just that it was shown as tragic. It’s also that queerness was portrayed as dangerous and sad, and as something that, in a lot of ways, Mercury was led into. It’s a gross, old stereotype, & frankly disappointing.
Before we get into that, though, credit where it’s due. There were a few ideas I liked a lot – primarily the openness to true and varied gender expression as shown through the beginning of his relationship with Mary (Lucy Boynton), also the oft-referenced idea of a chosen family of freaks and outcasts. Both of those elements made me hopeful (and both elements would have worked beautifully with the flawed, complex guy Mercury was). Unfortunately, it didn’t last.
The most frustrating thing throughout the film is the lack of agency Mercury is allowed regarding his sexuality. It’s a marked contrast to the decisiveness in which he moves through the rest of his life, and what’s even more infuriating is that so often the same basic event could have been told in an empowering, interesting way. Instead, it’s relentlessly negative and disempowering.
First, the truck stop scene. It’s like the end of The Force Awakens, cutting back and forth between Mercury and a trucker who eyed him up, everyone staring, no one making a decision. The film cuts to the trucker four times, and after the bathroom door closes behind him, to Mercury three more times as he stands outside. The whole scene is intercut with a performance of “Fat Bottomed Girls”. Oh won’t you take me home tonight indeed. But does anyone take anyone home? Or anywhere? The film doesn’t say. And look, I don’t need to see anything R rated. But I’d like to see a decision.
Second, the first time a man kisses him, it’s non-consensual. Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), a predatory & manipulative villain throughout, first belittles Mercury’s relationship with Mary, and then kisses him out of blue nowhere. It’s gross and awful, Paul basically telling him that he knows him better than anyone, including knowing what he wants better than he does. Again, Mercury doesn’t get to make the decision.
Third, though it may certainly be true that Paul picked up guys for Mercury, and that is not in itself an issue, the one time the film shows this to us, it gives us a self-hating, morning-after Mercury, demanding that Paul “clean up this mess and get rid of your friend”. Any sort of tenderness or even humanity in a goodbye would have been another thing entirely, but instead the one lover we actually see is in and out in a moment & treated like the remains of room service.
Fourth, Mercury doesn’t even get to have agency over his own coming out scene. When Mary finally gets him to tell her what’s bothering him, he tells her, “I think I’m bisexual.” She immediately contradicts him with: “Freddie, you’re gay.” And look, I’m not here to litigate whether he was bi or gay, but I will say this is definitely a moment that made me think of the myth of Montgomery Clift, tortured by his sexuality instead of finding joy in it. (And as “The Good Place” tells us, more guys should be bi.)
ALSO. Not only does Mary define Mercury’s sexuality for him, she also hammers home the tragedy of it all by telling him his life will be “very difficult”. The woman who an hour ago did his eye makeup and complimented him on how well he looked in ladies’ clothes! Then she leaves and from his tear-stained face we cut to the fucking cats again. Because that’s definitely a great place to make a joke.
Fifth, gay bars and queer culture are portrayed as dangerous, both through the tabloid coverage (which is not unexpected) but also through a montage to “Another One Bites the Dust”, where Paul is literally leading Mercury through red-lit leather bars, kaleidoscope & off-kilter shots awash with risk and temptation. Paul, the only other significant queer character, consistently isolates Mercury from the support system of his chosen family, introduces drugs, organizes hedonistic parties (or as hedonistic as you can get with a PG13 rating), and generally plunders and destroys Mercury until Mary rescues him in Munich.
And to balance all of this, we have what? Jim Hutton, lovely though he is, brought to mind Missy in Colette: the relationship I haven’t seen enough on screen relegated to a few minutes and an end title card.
So, yes. Malek is, for the most part, a terrific Mercury. You get a sense in the performance scenes of a tiny bit of the electricity you would have felt watching Queen live, especially when he hits full Dream Daddy mode at Live Aid. But Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that’s afraid of the story it has to tell, and by consistently portraying queerness as a source of pain it also does a disservice to those (very gay) performances.
One’s private life can be private and still be portrayed positively. There can be tension between the person you are and the person your family wants you to be, or how much the media wants of you, or both, while also showing, at least once, joy in the person that you are, and the way that queerness feeds the art that brings joy to others. But that didn’t happen here. At all. Instead it’s prudish. It wants to keep it PG13, & that’s a problem, though not an insurmountable one. It would rather make a joke than make you feel.
Two other small notes: the clinic where Mercury receives his diagnosis is bizarrely empty. It felt like they had only just removed the sheets covering furniture at a disused hospital. Also, I did not believe for a hot second a single thing about the reconciliatory tea with his family the day of Live Aid.
And one large note: as a kid who almost definitely was introduced to Queen by Wayne’s World, I was deeply annoyed by Mike Meyers, repeatedly taking us completely out of the movie in general, but specifically with the line about how teens will never bang their heads to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. UGH WE GET IT.
Anyway. Everyone should watch Queen’s Live Aid performance on YouTube, because it is legit amazing & singlehandedly made my purchase of a Chromecast worth it. You’re welcome.