For my edification I went to the cinema last night to see ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the eerie Odeon cinema at the Point (the cinema operating from the top floor of an abandoned shopping centre. This is the biopic of Farrokh Bulsara – the Parsi boy from Tanzania who moved with his family at the age of seventeen to Britain. He reinvented himself as Freddie Mercury, became the lead singer of Queen and conquered the world of music as one of the most talented and charismatic rock singers of all time. The film opens with Freddie pumping himself up as he readies himself to go onstage for the most iconic live performance of his career – Live Aid in Wembley Stadium in 1986.
It then reverts to 1970 when the young Bulsara is working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, where he joins a new student band that goes on to become Queen. He meets, forms a relationship and gets engaged to a woman Mary Austin who becomes his life-long muse – long after their relationship breaks up because of his homosexuality. The film catalogues the band’s meteoric rise to fame, their conflicts, and the loneliness and isolation Freddie felt as the band all pair up, falling into a spiral of excess – surrounding himself with opportunists and scavengers. He died of bronchial pneumonia in 1991 which was as a result of complications from AIDS, becoming the most high profile casualty of the AIDS pandemic which decimated the gay community in the 1980s and 1990s.
The film ends with a full re-enactment of Queen’s Live Aid performance. It is mesmerising. This was no ordinary talent. Queen’s songs remain stone, cold classic anthems to this very day – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’; ‘We will rock you’; ‘We are the champions’; ‘Radio Gaga’ and many more. It’s a wonderful film which paints a fascinating picture of a very complex man. Rami Malek is spectacular as Mercury – giving a convincing performance of the egomaniacal, but all too human Freddie. Dear old Peter Beale from EastEnders (Ben Hardy) is still instantly recognisable playing Roger Taylor. It has faced some criticism for downplaying Mercury’s homosexuality instead focusing on his relationship with Austin. I don’t agree with that analysis as that was seemingly the way he lived in his life.
While the film is exciting, entertaining and very engaging, it got me to thinking. Considering his fame, talent and legendary status, why isn’t Freddie Mercury a gay icon? The debate about what makes a gay icon is eternal. Certainly Mercury is a towering figure in the music culture as a whole and also for some gay people. He is not however an automatic response when you think of twentieth century gay icons. Perhaps Freddie Mercury (and Elton John) are not gay icons for their decision (also made by Status Quo and Rod Stewart) to play Sun City in 1984 during the height of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. I doubt that is the case somehow.
I think it is partly to do with how Freddie lived his life. He was flamboyant throughout his career, and from the 1980s he adopted the stereotypical clone look so popular among the homosexual male – the jeans, leather jacket, white vest, moustache. Almost the gay stereotype. He never came out though. This may have been a career decision – as the band was so popular among the straight, male audience. During the 1980s however, when gay men were dying in their thousands to total governmental disinterest, in a suffocating homophobic culture, there was an argument that Mercury – well known as a very active participant on the gay scene in London – had an obligation to come out.
While I don’t agree that anyone needs to come out against their will, neither should they be celebrated for staying in. Always a very private person, Mercury had no obligation to reveal details of his relationships with the treacherous Paul Prenter (who serves as the film’s villain) or Jim Hutton (the Irish man he was in a relationship with when he died of AIDS in November 1991 – 24 hours after revealing his illness). On the other hand this type of secrecy probably seems alien, self-serving or cowardly to the brave, keyboard warriors of 2018. Times were different then. I’m not going to judge a giant like Freddie Mercury through my 2018-tinted glasses.