Radio waves are being saturated. Everywhere I go, Queen anthems are thumping out. This is not a negative. The first CDs I bought were by Queen. I think. It was awhile ago. But there is commerce at play. Bohemian Rhapsody is in the cinemas and the music is the tie in.
I wasn’t going to see the film. Even announced as much on social media, having been swayed by reviews listing its inaccuracies (everything from how Freddie Mercury joined the band to the timing of his HIV/AIDS diagnosis). I was especially wary given reports of how the film framed Mercury’s sexuality and how only an apology for his behaviours could remake the band in time for Live Aid. Again, the timing is complete tosh, the band had toured for a year leading up to Live Aid. As for going solo, at least two band members had released their own albums before Mercury signed his deal to do the same. Thus solo careers and sexuality are mythical (?) sources of contention in Queen, who seemed to get along most of the time (if public interviews are evidence).
Having said all that…Rami Malek deserves an Oscar. In the same way Freddie Mercury was the heart of Queen’s live act, Malek is the film and this is heightened by the fact the narrative is book-ended by 1985’s Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium. Malek stole the film like Queen stole the show and like Mercury dominated the stage during that performance.
A note on this. I vaguely remember Live Aid. I remember Bob Geldof, but if you ask me who performed there’s only one answer: Queen. It was Mercury’s gig. It still is, because you can YouTube it, or bits of it. And if you’ve seen the film and the YouTube highlights, perhaps, like me, you’ll wonder why anyone bothered. Why remake anything so powerful? The film could’ve cut to the actual show. Nothing against Malek, in fact it is due to Malek that I think we could’ve cut between the real deal and the film barely noticed. And this makes me frustrated as the power of the music performances carries the film, and thus makes it seem the rest of the film is also authentic.
And this is where we get to the commercial nub. The remaining band members and management produced this film, and thus shaped its narrative to sell themselves. To this end they were extremely British: tidying away unpleasantness like breaking an Apartheid ban in South Africa, and limiting media negativity around Mercury to brief montages.
The film is a clue that the band members seem concerned about recognition: thus the change in how Mercury joined Smile, and the inaccuracies around who wrote what when. And later, the band are depicted as greeting an AIDS announcement with a hug. Maybe this happened, maybe it didn’t. It might not seem significant, but this was when fear drove people to abandon family members to the point many infected were unclaimed even in death. That hug erases the stigma anyone with HIV/AIDS endured even if it was a contemporary message of acceptance. But stigma and privacy, even for someone as privileged as Mercury, meant he didn’t go public until just before his death years later, after more music.
I mind less about pairing Mercury reflecting on his diagnosis to Brian May’s Who Wants to Live Forever from Highlander. It worked as a moment, even as an a-historical one. But this is MO of the entire film, it’s not history, nor biography, especially when Mercury is not here to defend the choices made in his absence. No, this is the hagiography of Queen’s surviving members to an epic sound track, to sell more of their music. I can’t blame them. Who doesn’t want to rewrite their story in some way? Queen had world-wide success, and each member contributed to this (literally, they each wrote top 10 singles) and if they want to look back on their roles in this a certain way, fair enough. But don’t mistake it for a documentary, even with the cats.
Thus, even though I see the manipulation, it’s still a good film. It had a Brian May that looks more like Brian May than Brian May, to quote twitter. Then again, the casting for all the band members is frankly remarkable. And spot the hidden Mike Myers. The film had laughs, it had pathos, it had high notes and low, as well as bravado and it still had a version of Freddie Mercury that you felt for, even though it was not the Freddie Mercury.
To misquote Radio Gaga, Queen: “you had your time, you had the power
I reckon you’ve had your finest hour.”
And it belonged to Freddie, because we still love you.