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Bohemian Rhapsody review: Freddie Mercury for the straight eye

Sex and lies: Bohemian Rhapsody, in its particularly judgemental language, vilifies the queer subculture of the ’70s.

Sex and lies: Bohemian Rhapsody, in its particularly judgemental language, vilifies the queer subculture of the ’70s.  

The superficial biopic on Queen refuses to look beyond its heteronormative worldview

On a tour of the States in the early days of Queen’s success, Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) calls up his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) from a phone booth, telling her how much he misses her. As he is talking, a beefy man gives him a flirtatious look and enters a public toilet, leaving him both flustered and tempted. This scene is Bohemian Rhapsody’s first acknowledgement of the pop star’s confused sexuality, where queerness lurks in a dark, dingy corner, calling out to Freddie like a devil. His actual “initiation into homosexuality” happens when his personal manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech of Downton Abbey fame), kisses him unexpectedly. Freddie doesn’t protest but eventually turns away and says, “You only see what you want to see.” From then on, the alienation and destructive nature of the singer are depicted to be caused by his devious lifestyle: drugs, sex and men.

Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Director: Bryan Singer
  • Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers.
  • Storyline: The journey of Freddie Mercury from being a baggage handler at Heathrow airport to becoming one of the most celebrated pop stars.

Bohemian Rhapsody, in its particularly judgemental language, vilifies the queer subculture of the ’70s, with all its “kinks” like leather, chains, drugs and drag, but extends respect to his monogamous relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) who is not as promiscuous or “queer” as all the other gay men in the film, giving Jim the heteronormative nod. Freddie’s sexual encounters at parties (and assumingly orgies) are never actually shown but hinted at to make it palatable to a universal audience, even as one may argue that they form a crucial aspect of Freddie’s story. After the drug-fuelled parties, the film cuts to scenes where Freddie first discovers that he has contracted HIV, feeding into the notoriously-held belief that the virus is a divine punishment for being sexually liberated.

Freddie’s bisexuality was an open secret, although not confirmed by the singer himself. The film never fully understands the fluidity but erroneously pushes for an either/or identity. When he nervously confides in Mary about being bisexual, she retorts, “Freddie, you’re gay” and proceeds to tell him how a tough life awaits him. The film does live up to her prophecy, where all the other members of Queen are shown to be living a happy family life but then Freddie is isolated and yearns for a “real family”.

Directed by Bryan Singer (who has denied multiple accusations of sexual abuse), the film doesn’t believe in nuance or complexity and stereotypes all that it doesn’t understand — be it his sexuality or his Parsi heritage. Freddie lived many identities and belonged to no one community. Bohemian Rhapsody does justice to none by trying to tackle all of his multitudes and ends up being a superficial, formulaic and manipulative biopic. Despite the film’s hollowness, Malek’s never loses his firm grip over Freddie and emerges as one of the few saving graces. The other would be the recreation of the Live Aid concert, which is an exhilarating big-screen tribute to Queen. The sheer scale of the concert and almost devotional participation of the audience stands testimony to Queen’s inspiring journey from a backyard band. In their early days, when asked what makes them special the response was, “We are four misfits playing for other misfits.” If only Bohemian Rhapsody understood and internalised the essence of those words.

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Printable version | May 24, 2020 9:21:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/reviews/bohemian-rhapsody-review-freddie-mercury-for-the-straight-eye/article25524744.ece

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