Bohemian Rhapsody

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Coming late to the party with this, but that probably reflects my relationship with Queen and Freddie Mercury very well!  I’ve got tapes (if they still work) of the 1991 re-release of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the 1992 re-release of “Barcelona” (the theme song of both the 1992 Olympics and the legendary 1999 Champions League final) and the 1993 Now Music version of “We Are The Champions”, but I haven’t got the originals. I *have* got the originals of “Innuendo” (taped off the Top 40 countdown on Radio 1, as you did in those days) and the superb “The Show Must Go On”, but I was a baby when “Bohemian Rhapsody” first hit the number one spot!

And, weirdly, I remember the day we heard of Freddie’s death much more clearly than I remember Live Aid. The news came through early on a Monday morning, and everyone was talking about it on the bus on the way to school, instead of talking about football like we usually did. No-one could talk about much else for the rest of the day. He was such a giant figure of music and popular culture.

Anyway, late or not, I loved this film. I know that it’s taken some liberties with the facts, partly for dramatic effect and partly because a 12-rated film’s never going to be able to do sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll properly; and parts of it were quite disjointed; but Rami Malek was just brilliant. He looked so much like Freddie Mercury that it was almost spooky.

I thought that the early part, especially the portrayal of the Bulsara family was very good, although I could have screamed when Freddie referred to *the* Queen as “Her Royal Highness” rather than “Her Majesty”. I bet the real Freddie would never have made such a silly mistake! The film didn’t say a lot about his background and early life, but you can only fit so much into a couple of hours, and what it did show was well done.

How much did we know about Freddie’s background?  Mention Zoroastrians, and everyone (well, everyone my age or a bit older!) will pipe up “Freddie Mercury”. Mention Zanzibar, ditto. But if you ask people to name famous British Asians, no-one’s going to mention Freddie Mercury, because his ethnic background wasn’t really part of his public persona. A lot of showbusiness people have Anglicised their names, ironically probably more so in “melting pot” America than in Britain, but with some people their background has been a big part of their public persona, and with others it hasn’t. That’s their choice. No-one is obliged to be a spokesperson for any particular demographic group to which they may happen to belong … but whether they are or not has to be the person’s choice, rather than something they feel either obliged to do or unable to do because of prejudice, and that leads into the controversy that’s attached to this film because of some critics claiming that it doesn’t accurately reflect Freddie’s sexuality.

It does show his relationships with both women and men, but it’s been criticised for focusing far more on his relationship with Mary Austin than on his relationship with Jim Hutton, and even for being negative about his relationships with men. I personally didn’t feel that the film said anything negative.  It did show negative comments from journalists, but that was only reflecting how things were at that time. And I think it’s important to remember that the film was meant to be about Freddie’s life as a musician, and about Queen in general, and not just about his sexuality. With TV programmes, soaps, hospital dramas, etc we’re now at a point where a character’s sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, etc, is not the be all and end all of the character, and they’re not constantly expected to represent a particular community in every plotline written for them, but we don’t seem to be there with biopics, yet … which is a shame.

Where it’s more deservedly been criticised is in its underplaying of the “hedonistic” lifestyle led by the members of Queen back in the day, but it was hamstrung by aiming for a PG/12 certificate, presumably to try to get kids into Queen’s music, so there’s not a lot to be said about that. More of an issue is the messing around with the facts for dramatic effect. It gives the impression that Queen had split up well before Live Aid, and got back together at the last minute because they wanted to be part of such a big event, which just isn’t true at all: they’d done a tour just beforehand. And it also suggested that Freddie came out to his parents and told his the rest of the band that he had AIDS on the actual day of the Live Aid concert, whereas in fact he hadn’t even been diagnosed at that point.

But, much as I dislike historical inaccuracies, films do need to be dramatic, and you can only fit so much into a couple of hours: the Live Aid concert was the denouement of the film, and there wasn’t time to go on to the late 1980s.  Shoving everything into one single day like that was overdoing it, but there wasn’t time to show the real timescale.  It’s always a problem with films: you can only fit so much in.

But it didn’t claim to be a documentary.  OK, that doesn’t excuse inaccuracies, but where the film did score big time was in being entertaining.  That, it certainly was. It had all that glorious music, and it was a well-deserved celebration of Queen and of Freddie Mercury.

As I said, on the morning we heard of Freddie Mercury’s death, we talked about him on the bus all the way to school. Two silly boys started singing “Freddie’s dead, Freddie’s dead, Freddie’s dead,” to the tune of “Here we go,” and everyone else yelled at them to shut up and show some respect for a great entertainer who’d died so young. We weren’t bothered whether he was bisexual, gay or straight, Asian or white, Zoroastrian or any other religion, and, whilst we were shocked and saddened by the news of his death, the fact that he’d died of AIDS wasn’t an issue for us (perhaps due partly to the Mark Fowler storyline in EastEnders earlier that year). We were just very sorry that such a huge figure in the music world and in popular culture had gone. Rami Malek does a superb job of portraying that huge figure, and I’m so glad that, whatever criticisms the film’s attracted, he won an Oscar for his performance. He deserves that. So does Freddie.

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