I watch very few movies of any sort, and I’m not a fan of the genre known as biopics. They can be good, but my preference is a serious documentary filmed by a serious documentary film maker, or better yet, a serious book written by a serious author.
Yes, this may sound dry and — dare I say it — even pedantic. But for me, it’s entertaining to learn. Knowledge is good. I like to know things.
In a pinch, just watch the Live Aid video. You can backtrack from there.
Guaranteed to blow your mind: the real Freddie Mercury, by Alexis Petridis (The Guardian)
Unlike the sanitised character in the new film Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen frontman was debauched, outrageous – and proud. We celebrate a rock legend in tight shorts, leather and leotards
Bohemian Rhapsody is a film that suffered from a difficult gestation. It was announced in 2010 but, in the intervening eight years, everyone from the lead actor to the screenwriter to the director either bailed or was replaced, in some cases several times. Freddie Mercury was first to be played by Sacha Baron Cohen, then Ben Whishaw, although it’s hard to see how either could have done a better job than the actor the role eventually went to, Rami Malek, whose incredible performance is the film’s one unequivocal triumph.
You can see why they pressed on with its making. For one thing, few artists have been so hawkish in posthumously extending their brand as Queen: since Mercury’s death in 1991, there have been jukebox musicals, umpteen archive releases and documentaries, as well as attempts to reboot the band without him. For another, Mercury’s story is clearly one worth telling. If anything, he seems a more remarkable figure in hindsight than at the height of his career.
The child of Parsi parents, who formed his first band at school in Mumbai, Mercury was an Asian frontman at a time when Asian visibility in rock was virtually nil and racism was overt (intriguingly, the guitarist in Mercury’s Bombay school band was Derrick Branche, who went on to appear as Mr Gupta in the famously problematic ITV comedy Mind Your Language). Island Records boasted an Anglo-Indian prog band called Quintessence, but there was certainly no other Asian rock star on Mercury’s scale. He was a gay man who, while never coming out publicly, put his sexuality front and centre in his performances and songwriting, apparently without his audience realising what he was doing.
In his autobiography Head On, Julian Cope recounts the experience of supporting Queen at Milton Keynes Bowl in 1982, as part of the Teardrop Explodes, and being showered with homophobic abuse by their fans. “[They] shouted, ‘Fuck off, you queer!’ at me,” recalled an incredulous Cope. “Wow, they dig Monsieur Freddie and they call me queer. So much for the workings of the average mind.”
Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t bad on the issue of Mercury’s race, a subject usually ignored or dismissed as beside the point in the story of Queen. We see Mercury facing down racist abuse while working as a baggage handler at Heathrow and from an audience member at an early gig. But its depiction of his sexuality is more troubling. It’s a film that seems to view the fact that Mercury was gay as little short of a tragedy. His homosexuality leaves him lonely, unable to share his bandmates’ domestic happiness as they settle down into marriage and parenthood. It drives a musical wedge between the band and their frontman, whose ideas for songs and styles are increasingly founded on his experiences in gay clubs and viewed as antithetical to the spirit of the band.
It also seems to give him a taste for hedonism that makes him unreliable and unprofessional: according to the film, the rest of Queen seem to have spent the late 70s and 80s tutting and rolling their eyes at Mercury’s behaviour before demurely excusing themselves from whatever deranged bacchanal their singer was leading the charge at and going to bed early. Anyone with a passing interest in the band knows this is nonsense. A reporter from the US magazine Circus who attended the legendarily debauched launch party for their 1978 album Jazz noted with surprise: “Brian May seems to be the true organiser of the night’s carnival.” Yet watching the film, you think: “God, imagine being in a band at the height of the most sybaritic decade in rock with this bunch of prigs.”