November 1, 2018

Queen Biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" Opens

This week (on November 2, 2018), the Queen biopic movie known as "Bohemian Rhapsody" opens in the U.S. Its a story about the entire band, but the group's lead singer and front man known by the name of Freddie Mercury is really the central focus.


Freddie Mercury was actually born Farrokh Bulsara. He was of Parsi descent, which is an ethnic group in India whose origins are in what is considered present-day Iran, but the group fled religious persecution in Persia (Iran), and ended up in what is now India. His given name is Parsian in origin. However, while some of his formative years were spent in India, Freddie Mercury was actually born in what was then the British protectorate of Zanzibar in present-day Tanzania on the African continent. He lived there (as well as in India) before he, his parents, and his younger sister moved to England when he was just a teenager.

Queen was a global superstar rock group back in the 1970's into the early 1980's. The group dominated the charts across the English-speaking world, with a string of radio hits including the signature song for which this biopic film was named, as well as "We are the Champions", "Another One Bites the Dust", "Somebody to Love", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and others which continue to be played even today. Front man Freddie Mercury was the lead singer, and also a songwriter for the band. He was known to have a four-octave vocal range. The band Queen also enjoyed a brief U.S. resurgence in popularity following the release of the 1992 movie "Wayne's World", which featured "Bohemian Rhapsody" in its soundtrack.

The "Bohemian Rhapsody" biopic covers the years between the formation of Queen by Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, telling the story of the beginnings of the band, up until their show-stealing performance at the LiveAid concert in 1985. The audio for the classic rock song "Bohemian Rhapsody" can be listened to below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/BohemianRhapsody_337:


Actor Rami Malek was ultimately cast as lead singer Freddie Mercury, and most reviews suggest that he is a key reason the film worked as well as it did.

Actor Rami Malek, who portrays Freddie Mercury in the movie "Bohemian Rhapsody"
about the rock band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury on October 1, 2018.
Photo credit: Paul Marotta/Getty Images for 20th Century Fox
Originally, Freddie Mercury was to be played by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known for his comedic characters Borat, Ali G, and Brüno. But in 2013, Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out of the role due to creative differences with the remaining members of Queen. Cohen reportedly wanted a more realistic, R-rated look at the band and Freddie Mercury's life, while the band preferred going for a PG tone. They reportedly parted on good terms, but the band felt that Cohen's presence would have been distracting. In 2017, Rami Malek was chosen to play Freddie Mercury. Malek is actually an American actor of Egyptian and Greek descent, but his physical characteristics made him a very credible choice for the role, and he has been credited with an excellent depiction of the singer, too. There is slightly less media focus on the other band members, although given that several of them were involved in the casting and production, we can presume most of the original Queen band-members were satisfied with their portrayals.

There has been plenty of criticism about the "Bohemian Rhapsody" including the filmmakers' largely ignoring front man Freddie Mercury's sexuality. In fact, the criticism for attempting to "straight-wash" the rock icon has merit: "Bohemian Rhapsody" devotes considerable screen time to Freddie Mercury's romance with Mary Austin — the woman he wrote the hit song "Love of My Life" about — before it even starts to address his many relationships with men near the halfway part of the movie.

As the Guardian's Steve Rose touched upon the subject (see the review at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/oct/23/bohemian-rhapsody-review-freddie-mercury-biopic-bites-the-dust for details), stating: "Unforgivably, Bohemian Rhapsody casts Mercury's wilderness years as a symptom of his gayness. We see the solo Mercury in Munich, drug-addled, shorn of his real friends and exploited by his new ones, who are mostly leather-clad, party-happy men. It reduces Mercury's homosexuality to a tutting "he's got in with the wrong crowd".

Forbes' Scott Mendelson was even less kind in his review, which had the headline "'Bohemian Rhapsody' Review: Freddie Mercury Gets Slut-Shamed In Homophobic Biopic" (see that review at
https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2018/10/24/bohemian-rhapsody-review-freddie-mercury-gets-slut-shamed-in-homophobic-biopic/ for detail), saying:

"It is a painfully by-the-numbers biopic, squeezing the narrative into a 'Walk Hard' box while struggling with the simple fact that (at least as portrayed in this film) Freddie Mercury's life wasn't all that cinematic. Just because someone makes great art and has an interesting personality doesn't mean they merit a narrative feature film based on their life and exploits. When Mercury and his bandmates are working their magic, the movie will rock you. But when its going through the biopic motions, you won't be having a good time."

Mendelsohn has a point; there are parts of the movie that are excellent (such as the performances), but there are also parts that are not as good. Whether that means the film is homophobic is probably a mischaracterization. There is no doubt Mercury was definitely a product of his era: during the '70's and '80's, in spite of being post-Stonewall, true equality in terms of socially acceptable behavior and sexual orientation were still quite different than today. The late pianist and showman Liberace (catch my post on his biopic at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2013/05/steven-soderberghs-newest-movie-depicts.html for more) was a product of the earlier part of that era, whereas Freddie Mercury was a product of the latter part of that era. Gay and bisexual performers, and assuredly transgendered performers (although few of the latter had very big careers in show business) were expected to, and generally did, live closeted lives.

In fact, Mercury is known to have had sex with both men and women, and the filmmakers were doing a biopic of the band Queen over a 15-year period, not a detailed expose of the front man's personal sex life. However, there's no getting around the fact that Mr. Mercury died in 1991 at age 45 due to complications from AIDS, having publicly confirmed that he'd contracted the disease just one day before his death. According to his male partner Jim Hutton, Freddie Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in late April 1987. During his lifetime, he was also known to have frequented many gay leather bars in across Europe, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere, so he wasn't truly closeted. The handlebar mustache he wore during the LiveAid concert (which would be one of his last public performances) was also a popular look among the gay leathermen crowd in the 1980's.

However, upon his death, Freddie Mercury did end up leaving his London home to Mary Austin in his will (which was a 28-room Georgian mansion set in a quarter-acre manicured garden surrounded by a high brick wall), which she'd picked out for him, rather than to his male partner Jim Hutton, saying to Ms. Austin, "You would have been my wife, and it would have been yours anyway."

Other criticisms include, of all things, the teeth that actor Rami Malek wore in the film. NPR's Glen Weldon had this to say (see the NPR review at https://n.pr/2zkjrv6) about those:

"They're ... something, those teeth. They distend Malek's upper lip, just as the real ones did Freddie Mercury's — more, actually; it's not so much an overbite as an überbite."

Aside from criticism of teeth (of all things), NPR acknowledged:

"Early worries that the film might elide Mercury's queerness prove unfounded, mostly. Sort of. True, his long romance with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) is presented as the one relationship in his life that he clings to — but that feels less like a desire to whitewash his gayness and more like an attempt to address the very believable possibility that a gay man of his time and place, with his upbringing, would find himself reluctant to abandon a relationship that represented a life he'd been brought up to expect for himself."

Regardless of his sexual orientation being bi, gay or straight, the real question becomes whether this biopic is a realistic view which can be squeezed into a two hour movie. The movie aims to chronicle the 15-year period between their formation as a band and their famous performance at LiveAid at Wembley Stadium in 1985.  That LiveAid performance can be seen below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/20180315020139:



As noted, actor Rami Malek's performance as Freddie Mercury has been praised almost universally. Mr. Malek played Elliot Alderson for a second season in USA Network's psychological drama "Mr. Robot". The actor, whose credits also include "Short Term 12" and "The Master", won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama in 2016. In spite of those credits, he remains relatively unknown, which may be his biggest advantage. When audiences don't know what to expect from an actor, they won't be disappointed. But as noted, the reviews of his performance as Freddie Mercury have been overwhelmingly positive.

In any event, there is certainly enough in the new movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" to merit watching it. Whether its a perfect depiction will ultimately be up to the viewers. I suspect the feelings will be mixed, but Mr. Malek's performance will ensure the actor will get consideration for future movie and television roles.  The "Bohemian Rhapsody" movie preview is available below, or by visiting https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/bohemian-rhapsody or https://youtu.be/mP0VHJYFOAU:



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