I want to say something to this film’s young queer fans. (Buckle up, ’cause this will be long and full of links.)
I see you. Your love for this movie is valid. Never before in history has a movie with an openly queer protagonist played on 3000 screens in the US, let alone grossed over half a billion dollars internationally — that we’ve gotten this far is momentous and worth celebrating. I see your admiration for Freddie and his artistry; I’m just as compelled as you to stare slack-jawed at the sheer grandiosity, the sheer confidence, the sheer number of glittery bodysuits he got away with at a time when most of the public would be hard-pressed to think of us as humans. That he did it while fronting Queen, while giving us music so unapologetically gaudy and emotional and operatic it continues to induce full-body chills decades later, is almost too amazing to believe. And at a time when so much of our world is being overtaken by squares and bigots, it’s great to have a massive, shared cultural event that fulfills the role of a tribute to him. I understand all that. I even understand why you’d write off the negative reviews as homophobia.
But let me be clear on something: you deserve better. Yes, Freddie Mercury was, is and will forever be a queer icon (whatever shenanigans his ghost may be up to at the moment) — and you deserve a movie that doesn’t take that for granted. Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t tell the truth about Freddie Mercury. It barely even scratches the surface. And for “the top LGBT film of all time,” it also plays fast and loose with our own truth, the truth about our culture and our struggle. It’s important you know that, because the “smash hit” narrative and the awards bodies would have you think this particular take on queerness is a meaningful or legitimate one. It’s not. I can’t stress that enough.
First things first: you are not the outlier. If you click over to the GoldDerby article linked above, you’ll find a comments section filled with cishet people angrily dismissing the notion that Bohemian Rhapsody is an LGBT film, and denying our claim to Freddie’s mythos. It’s not just because they’re idiots; the movie is designed to let them believe that. At most, it’s willing to give queer viewers a sense of superficial confidence, by proclaiming that it really doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight: if you’re a genius like Freddie, your sexuality will be looked past and you will be loved. Again, as someone whose first instinct after coming out was to remind my loved ones that nothing had changed and I was still me, I completely understand the appeal of that message. But again, it’s a dishonest one. Queen’s music is universal, Freddie’s mythos is universal, but they’re ours, too, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging and taking pride in that.
Don’t forget this: Freddie Mercury wasn’t a genius despite his queerness, or in addition to his queerness. He was a genius because of it.
I don’t have to tell you that there’s something triumphantly queer about Queen’s music. (They are, after all, called Queen.) But it goes beyond the fact that they dared to be uncool, or that they embraced camp, or that they catered to “the misfits and the outcasts in the back of the room.” Consider this extensive analysis by biographer Lesley-Ann Jones, in which she persuasively argues that the titular song tells the thinly-veiled story of Mercury’s inner turmoil as a queer man. In the movie, the composition and recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody” are pitched to “”everybody” — with the fast cuts and the winky jokes and the eureka moments and the big speech about ditching formula that all viewers can appreciate regardless of sexual orientation. The movie doesn’t tell you how bound up the whole shebang is with Freddie’s queerness. And by God, you deserve to know that it is. The car scene in Wayne’s World? They’re singing a coming-out song. It’s ours. Nobody can change that.
A lot more has been written about how Freddie’s “personal life” — as the straights like to call it — informed the public, celebrated facet of who he was. Pieces and pieces and pieces and pieces. Don’t you ever let anyone try to tell you that Mercury the rock god was a separate, insulated thing from Mercury the bisexual party animal, as this film tries so hard to suggest. Yes, Freddie was largely a private man, and yes, he had to play constant games of cat-and-mouse with the press and even his associates to ward off the UK tabloid vultures, but he was decidedly not ashamed of his sexual freedom; it was a part of who he was, it was a part of how he geared up to perform on stage, and it was a part of his identity as an artist. There’s no “Don’t Stop Me Now” without it. There’s no night at the Odeon without it. He was a bisexual man — a bisexual man, someone who lived his life outside the gay/straight dichotomy ascribed to men by heteronormativity, Mary Austin’s famous quote notwithstanding — and he never had to distance himself from that part of him to achieve success.
And speaking of Mary Austin quotes, I want to address one thing she says in the film that’s so appalling I refuse to believe the real Austin would have ever even thought it.
No matter what, you are loved. By me, by Brian, Deacy, Roger, your family. It’s enough. And these people…they don’t care about you. Paul doesn’t care about you. You don’t belong here, Freddie.
Here, I have to be categorical: queer culture is not antithetical to love. The idea that gay clubbing and same-sex smooching will drag you away from the people who care about you is a false one. First, because those who truly care about you won’t be disgusted by your queerness, as Brian and Deacy and Roger and Mary are in the film; if they’re disgusted, that’s on them to work through, not on you to work around. Second, because you will find love in the queer community too. Freddie’s own life is proof of it: long before he even began his relationship with Jim Hutton (which was also not conditioned to his “cleaning up his act,” i.e. Not Being So Gay, as the movie indicates; the first two times they met were at gay bars, and they immediately started dating after the second time), he found just as much love and community and fulfillment in the London gay scene as in the company of his straight bandmates — from his process of self-discovery alongside David Minns to his inseparable friendship with Peter Straker to his years and years of queer adventures and camaraderie with Kenny Everett (which the movie touches upon briefly, as if trying to get it out of the way). Just read this account of the time he, Everett and Cleo Rocos took Princess Diana to a gay bar and picture the scene, the fun, the giddiness, the liberation of it. Bohemian Rhapsody’s penitent image of that fun is no more a reflection of queer life than Malek’s fake teeth are of the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Dentistry’s entry on hyperdontia.
Going further, you must be mindful that, when Bohemian Rhapsody portrays Queen’s fans exclusively as nondescript, “universal” masses, when it intercuts Live Aid with scenes of an innocuously straight-looking pub, when it individualizes queer men only in the context of their negative influence and erases queer women altogether, it’s denying you a share of Freddie’s legacy that’s yours by right. He may not have been an open advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, but he was decidedly a major figure in their advancement. If you read this beautiful piece by Eternity Martis, which encapsulates the way Mercury’s status as a queer brown man broke new ground in Western and Eastern culture, boosting the self-confidence of queer fans all over, offering them an alternate path amid the aggressive heteromasculinity of mainstream rock, or these testimonies from GGN staffers about what Mercury’s music and image meant to them growing up, you’ll see that the rabid queer fandom of Queen we partake in today is not disconnected from the ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, it’s a continuation of something that was just as real and alive back then, something integral to Queen’s very beginnings as a band, even though the movie adamantly refuses to show it.
Read up, too, on how Mecury’s battle with AIDS helped raise awareness and change public attitudes towards the disease. Understand that the timing of his diagnosis in the film is disrespectful not just because it’s inaccurate, not just because he probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off Live Aid if he were in an advanced stage of AIDS and aware of it, but because the real story of his struggle — of how he spent his final years incessantly writing and recording despite his physical deterioration, his final weeks sending gifts to his friends, his final days figuring out the wording of his official statement — is so much more illuminating of the nature of his genius, of how it was not a supernatural gift but an extension of his humanity, however battered and deviant. Please, as electrifying as those final 20 minutes are, don’t let Bohemian Rhapsody color the way you view Live Aid. Live Aid was not a miracle; it wasn’t an endpoint; it wasn’t a climatic triumph over AIDS. It was a gorgeous moment in time, and the portion of Mercury’s life lived out after it, away from the eyes of straight Queen fans, matters just as much.
And here, I want to go back and address the “critics are just homophobic” thing. Again, I can see why you’d think that. Lord knows the critical mainstream really can be oddly resistant to queerness sometimes (Jennifer’s Body has a 47 on Metacritic for crying out loud! But I’m a Cheerleader has a 39!!). I realize there’s at least one creative element in Bohemian Rhapsody that’s overtly, proudly queer in a way that feels enlivening — the costume design — and in fact I’d encourage you to read more about how Mercury’s fashion choices reflected his intelligence, his comfort in his own skin, and his self-awareness as a queer icon to a degree that even the movie doesn’t quite capture. But I’d also like to point you to the many queer writers who eloquently expounded their reservations with the film, because there’s a very important point I wrote all of this to try to illustrate: this movie isn’t on your side.
I’m not even talking about the Bryan Singer stuff; it’s obviously sickening that this movie put money in the pocket of someone who did such profound harm to so many queer men, but I know many of you weren’t aware of this when you became fans of the movie and wouldn’t support it financially anymore. I’m talking about something else: when you rationalize the criticisms laid out in the aforementioned reviews by saying that that’s just the way things were at the time, or that Freddie probably felt ashamed of his lifestyle and the movie tries to reflect that, or that what matters is Freddie’s music and not his private life, you’re not just making factual mistakes. You are, in fact, helping prop up a movie that thinks little of you, that doesn’t care about your queerness and does nothing to honor it, that deliberately hides the fundamental link between Freddie’s personal and professional lives to appease casually homophobic viewers and then also finds room to confirm those viewers’ most hateful and insidious biases. I know an $800-million-grossing queer movie is a big deal. But in this world, we can’t afford to let our guard down; we have to wonder why this specifically was the queer movie to break the glass ceiling. And pardon my snarkiness, but it certainly wasn’t because of any deep artistic genius. If I had to guess, I’d say it was because this is a movie for them, not us. It’s pointedly, proudly, a movie for the Waynes and Garths — and it asks the closeted kids struggling with their identity to content themselves with scraps.
But listen: whether you’re closeted or not, struggling or not, you don’t have to content yourself with this. The Bohemian Rhapsody phenomenon was, of course, aided by its unprecedentedly huge release, and I know many of you took to it because there’s just so little else this widely available, so I’ll close this review with a list of recommendations from the same year. If you want a story about a trailblazing, unapologetically queer genius navigating a heteronormative world, watch Colette. If you want a big-budget celebration of camp and androgyny, watch A Wrinkle in Time. If you want a depiction of a proudly flamboyant and reckless gay man shutting down those who try to moralize him or box him in at every turn, watch Can You Ever Forgive Me? If you want a thoughtful, unfussy, nonjudgmental depiction of same-sex love, watch The Favourite. If you want an honest and well-considered grappling with queer self-loathing, watch The Miseducation of Cameron Post. If you want a broad, accessible movie where a central character just happens to be queer and gets to do gay-kissing, watch Blockers. If you want something that pays loving tribute in a mainstream context to male stage performers who toy with gender norms, watch Dumplin’. If you want a lavish paean to the power of queer music and aesthetics, watch Dirty Computer. If you want a rebuttal to conservative ideas about masculinity, watch You Were Never Really Here. If you want a movie that employs rainbow-tinted iconography and visual language to turn out nuggets of blazing beauty, look out for Rafiki. And if you want to honor a queer icon of color who revolutionized performance, smashed down gender lines, embraced partying and sexual freedom, and shushed naysayers with their brilliance, watch Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami.
And yes, of course, keep listening to Queen. Their music and their legacy are yours for the taking, no matter what anyone says.