In July 1985, at 6:20pm local time, Queen (comprised of bassist John Deacon, guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, and lead singer Freddie Mercury) took the stage at Wembley Stadium for their performance as part of Live Aid, a star-studded concert broadcast worldwide to raise money for famine victims in Ethiopia. Critics have consistently ranked their performance as among the best in rock-and-roll history. The film Bohemian Rhapsody, the stylized musical biopic of Freddie Mercury and Queen, captures the event beautifully, recreating the Live Aid concert nearly in its entirety. Yet critics have remained deeply ambivalent about its portrayal of Mercury. The Guardian referred to the film’s treatment of Mercury’s sexuality as “moralistic sneering,” while Roger Ebert’s site called it “phobic.” Billboard’s review was slightly more positive, acknowledging that Mercury’s “struggle with his own sexuality is explored at length throughout the film,” even if the result is not an overwhelming success. The issue, however, might not be with the film’s attitude towards Mercury’s life, but in its overall narrative framework.
Essentially, Bohemian Rhapsody is structured as a traditional western romance with Freddie Mercury and his band Queen as the protagonists (the three other members of Queen here function essentially as a single entity). The film follows the classic romantic plot: the “meet,” the “lose,” and the “get,” resulting in a happily-ever-after. It’s a plot that is ingrained in western culture, incorporating a mythic, almost sacred quest for fulfillment along with an enormous emotional payoff.1 However, there is no room in this romance for relationships or plotlines that don’t contribute to the protagonists’ happily-ever after. Moreover, the film largely omits historical context and details, which does a disservice to both Mercury and Queen, oversimplifying and flattening a highly complex story.
The film itself follows Mercury from his early days as an immigrant from Zanzibar working at Heathrow Airport to his meteoric rise to fame with Queen. Along the way, we see him meeting and falling in love with Mary Austin, a woman to whom he remains devoted even after realizing his sexual attraction to men. Musically, the band gets stronger and stronger, yet Freddie himself is led astray by a managerial assistant named Paul Prenter, who convinces Mercury to turn his back on Queen and pursue a solo career. The film ends with the band reunited and performing together at Live Aid.
We open with a meet-cute between Mercury and the duo of guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, who have been left in the (musical) lurch by their previous singer. Mercury introduces himself with a sudden outburst of song that forces both May and Taylor to see and value him differently from the other hangers-on who fill the hallways and hold up the bar in the student union in which they have been playing. At the same time, Freddie meets Austin, a woman of critical importance to Mercury’s real-life story, frequently described on film and in reality as the “love of his life.”
Although the movie delves into their private relationship, Mary’s real function in the film is to urge Freddie toward his “true” purpose with the band. In a crucial scene, after Freddie has left Queen to pursue a solo career, Mary states that it is Roger and Brian who truly love Freddie, not his party-loving hangers-on. Her joy at the Live Aid performance that provides the movie’s end is as much a result of seeing the band reunited as it is for Freddie’s artistic triumph. Although the film allows for Mercury to have relationships outside of Queen, Mary’s narrative arc demonstrates that there is no relationship more important than his with the band.
In this framework, Paul Prenter, who was employed first by the band and then as Mercury’s personal manager in the early 1980s, serves as the catalyst for the “break-up” that tears Queen and Freddie Mercury apart. There is no doubt that Prenter’s influence proved detrimental to the band’s interpersonal communication and relationship. The band’s manager, John Reid, explained Prenter “only had his own interests at heart … . He wasn’t a nice man. He was a nice boy but turned into a real nightmare.”2
However, the film overlooks the depth and complexity of Prenter’s relationship with Mercury (and, indeed, all of Mercury’s self-exploration during this period) in favor of assembling a traditional love triangle narrative. In the film, Prenter leads an apparently innocent Mercury astray, away from the love offered by Queen, wasting his time and talent with parties and drugs, and nearly destroying the band’s chance to perform in Live Aid.
In such a framework, Mercury’s attraction to men is not portrayed as something emancipatory, emotional, or even self-driven. Instead, the audience follows him in a voyeuristic walk-through of a leather bar, no doubt meant to be the Mineshaft in New York, an exclusive, members-only BDSM gay bar and sex club. The scene feels adulterous, presaging the dangerous path that Freddie is traveling without the guidance of Queen. He suffers as a result, and Mary finds him sick, nervous, and artistically impotent.
During this period of the film, Freddie also meets Jim Hutton, the man who would become his longtime partner. At their first meeting, Jim encourages Freddie to “Call me when you like yourself.” The implication is that Freddie’s exploration of his identity, his extravagance, and his exuberance are all signs of self-hatred, rather than a journey of self-exploration and self-acceptance.
Queen never broke up, but portraying this period of their career as such provides the emotional catalyst necessary for them to triumph at Live Aid, and for Mercury to reform personally. We see him emotionally committing to Jim Hutton, although their relationship remains completely platonic, and introducing him to his family. His re-committal to Queen, we see, has given Freddie the courage to “like himself.” The story thus ends, quite literally, on the highest of emotional notes.
Here again, however, the film bends and warps a non-linear reality to fit a traditional narrative. The film shows Mercury being tested for and diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, and confirming the fact to his bandmates in the week before their Live Aid performance, a disclosure that was not made to the group until approximately 1987.3
Rather than placing Mercury’s diagnosis within an accurate historical context, the film frames his health as a kind of inevitable result of (if not an outright punishment for) his “adultery” from the group while under Prenter’s sway. Neither the film nor its characters ever condemn Freddie Mercury for his sexuality or his desires, or attempt to deny them. However, framing his diagnosis as the result of his “adultery,” inherently condemns Freddie’s sexual relationships with other men as a moral wrong that requires forgiveness. The only relationships that are permissible to have with other men, we are shown, are platonic ones that result in great art.
While overlooking Mercury’s diagnosis entirely would ignore a critical aspect of his life and legacy, the placement of this fact at this point in the film makes it impossible not to read AIDS as a punishment for his sexual activity and “philandering.” Such a damning and dangerous implication not only does injustice to Mercury as an individual, but also isolates him from the historic reality in which he lived. The film ignores the sexual and cultural revolution that was taking place in the western world and the liberation that gay culture provided Mercury, who was raised in a conservative, religious immigrant family, as well as others like him.
It also overlooks the enormous contribution that Mercury made to that culture, performing gender in ways that were as liberating and exciting for fans as they were unsettling for detractors (see, for example, The Boston Globe’s 1980 article which referred to him as “Mr. Androgyny”). Further, it ignores the homophobia of the 1980s, the worldwide stigma surrounding AIDS, and the pain and fear Mercury and thousands of others endured watching friends and lovers die from a disease that had no cure.
As Catherine Roach notes, a romance’s happily-ever-after is a critically important form of wish-fulfillment, creating an “ideal paradise where we are loved…where wounds are made right, where pleasure and security reign guaranteed.”4 In this sense, Bohemian Rhapsody succeeds; it offers an emotional journey that ends with Freddie and his band reuniting in an ecstasy of performance, defying death itself with their triumph.
However, the filmmakers’ framing of Freddie Mercury and Queen as a traditional romance narrative also obscures the very complexities that made their real story unique. Such a heteronormative framework treats most of Mercury’s life outside the band as either incidental detail or dangerous deviance. In truth, there is no way to separate Freddie Mercury’s creativity and artistic expression from the whole, complete, and complex life he lived, both with and apart from Queen. To do so overlooks the ways in which Mercury’s life, sexuality, and self-expression challenged tradition and patriarchy in ways as important today as when he took to the stage at Wembley Stadium in 1985.
- Catherine Roach, “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1, no. 1 (2010). Return to text.
- Quoted in Mark Langthorne and Matt Richards, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (London: Weldon Owen 2016), 213. Return to text.
- Langthorne and Richards, 329. Return to text.
- Roach. Return to text.
Thanks for this honest and thoughtful review, Bridget.