The Travesty That is Hollywood’s Bohemian Rhapsody
By Sheril A. Bustaman
I can’t tell you exactly when I started listening to Queen because it has been as much a part of my life as other greats such as The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Growing up, my father was the director of the nation’s first English-language radio station which gave me access to some great music. Suffice to say, I am a die-hard fan of Queen’s music which is largely thanks to Freddie Mercury’s boldness and genius in music making that resulted in lifelong hits such as Bohemian Rhapsody. Despite this, the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody recently released in the cinemas that is inspired by Freddie Mercury and Queen is in my opinion an incredibly problematic piece of cinema.
Bohemian Rhapsody presents itself as a celebration of the band Queen, their music and of course – their lead singer Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek). The film definitely does all three by showcasing the different phases the band goes through together, the metamorphosis of Farrokh Bulsara into Freddie Mercury, as well as the making of Queen’s 6-minute masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody. The selection of Queen songs that ring through the cinema is majestic in itself and is in my opinion the only real reason to watch this film. Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury is also one to be commended as he channels the charisma and flamboyance that distinguished Freddie Mercury as an artist. However, beyond the sparkle of the costumes and the roar of the Queen music is the heightened subtext of homophobia as well as a strong stigmatisation against homosexuals who contract AIDS.
The exploitation and emphasis of Freddie Mercury’s relationship with his former fiance and lifelong friend Mary Austin (played by Lucy Boynton) comes across as a subtle attempt at straight-washing the character, and the downplaying of the development of Mercury’s relationship with his partner Jim Hutton towards the second half of the film further supports the attempt. The film seems to define homosexuality or Freddie Mercury’s relationship with men as purely physical and short term as we see through a montage of Mercury through gay clubs and passing glances with gentlemen in hallways. This implies that despite Mercury’s evident attraction to men, his commitment is still to his heterosexual relationship with Mary, even after Mary has moved on and found a different life partner. This concept further enforces the subtextual straight-washing which is deeply unnecessary.
Bohemian Rhapsody also demonizes homosexuality through the character of Paul Prenter (played by Allen Leech) and Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis. Paul Prenter is portrayed as a villainous homosexual who enables Freddie Mercury’s drug habit and helps him solicit men to spend the night with. As the only constant character on-screen that identifies as homosexual, Paul Prenter and his sexuality comes off as devious and conniving, always trying to isolate Mercury from everything he holds dear and is a cancer to him and his work. Eventually, Prenter is also shown as Mercury’s downfall when he outs Mercury on television in an interview speaking of Mercury’s promiscuity and sexuality. Again, the film’s choice to heavily feature this relationship with Paul Prenter as opposed to the positive homosexual relationship in Freddie Mercury’s life is another example of how it is trying to demonize homosexuality as well as homosexuals, making the film subtly homophobic.
The treatment of Freddie Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis was also done poorly and does the community that lives with HIV and AIDS severe injustice. Mercury is seen to take his diagnosis as a death sentence and propels the story towards its resolution – Mercury’s repentance of his old ways, the reconciliation of Queen and his discovery of Jim Hutton with everything peaking at the 1985 Live Aid concert. Bohemian Rhapsody sings an old and tired tune of how homosexuals are punished with AIDS and must repent before it is too late, using Freddie Mercury as a lesson akin to fire and brimstone. While this narrative was one that was strong in the 80s and early 90s, it is unacceptable to continue to showcase this stigma in film in the year 2018 where global campaigns to end the AIDS epidemic continue to innovate and new treatments and prevention methods for HIV are discovered every year. The fact that the film inaccurately diagnosed Freddie Mercury with AIDS two years before he was actually diagnosed just so the film could peak and end at the Live Aid concert further adds insult to injury.
I understand creative license and that Bohemian Rhapsody is a biopic that is not entirely accurate. I also understand the need to dramatise certain elements in order to create an effective illusion that is cinema. It is a Hollywood film after all. But considering how Queen and Freddie Mercury were so progressive in sound and brand back in the day, the film does not do the music and the man justice. It takes many steps back into the late 80s and is not a film made with the consideration of the queer community or the PLHIV (people living with HIV) community. Its’ inaccuracies while small are still dangerous as they advocate for ideals such as punishment for one’s sexuality and that AIDS is a death sentence to a person as opposed to a condition that can be treated. Hence, Bohemian Rhapsody is a film that is to be viewed with both eyes closed and both ears open because while the story is an absolute travesty, the music will still rock you.
[This article was originally written for and published at MuslimWorldToday.org]
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