Did you know Freddie Mercury died of AIDS? Did you know he lived in a time when gay sexuality was criminalized in most jurisdictions? Did you know he liked gay sex? Did I mention he died of AIDS?
Those are the only important things to know about him, according to the cool kids. Vox's review gave the movie 1.5 stars out of 5. Why? "Bohemian Rhapsody was made with the cooperation of Queen’s surviving members, but they reportedly were only willing to sign on if it wouldn’t be R-rated, and thus it’s scrubbed clean of much of the content that might round out a film more committed to accuracy regarding the lifestyle of its characters." Shorter version: needs more gay sex, needs more AIDS.
IndieWire gave the film a rating of D+, writing that "the film is so sanitized—so eager to share the credit, and so sheepish to assign the blame—that it often feels like a network TV version of a story."
The most negative review of the film I've seen appeared in The Stranger, written by my colleague Chase Burns. "The 15-minute long shit I took during the middle of the movie was more nuanced than the straight-washed hagiography peddled in that movie theater," he writes. While I take Chase at his word that his poop was magnificent (he brings it up again later, concluding his review with: "Take a nice poop instead"), I have no idea what he's talking about.
Chase's review is headlined: "I Hope Christians Like Bohemian Rhapsody, Because Someone Should." I am not a straight person, and I am not a Christian, and I liked the movie. I didn't write a rebuttal to his review after I saw it because I didn't wanna fight (Chase is practically my favorite person ever!), but since the film won a bunch of Golden Globes last night, and since Chase and I literally watched it together, and since he was staring arrows at me every time I mentioned my opinion, and since The Stranger has only said the film is poop, well, the time has come for my response to Chase's review. I think it's lazy (though very hip!) to take down the movie on identity grounds. As for me, when I saw the film, my date (also gay) and I both thought: (1) that was a good movie, and (2) thank god it wasn't all about AIDS.
Why is it a good movie? Because it depicts and embodies the complicatedness of artistic collaboration, because it shows the downsides and the virtues of a brilliant person's out-of-control ego, because it dramatizes the way repression warps people, because it suggests what the world lost with an entire generation of gay artists who were wiped out (this was only one person, and yet the loss here alone is huge), because the music's fantastic (duh) and it was written by the characters we're seeing depicted on-screen, and because it manages to depict an artist who died of AIDS without ending with him on his deathbed succumbing to AIDS.
As the Vox review points out: "Mercury died in 1991, having publicly revealed his AIDS diagnosis only the day before." Memo to the moral crusaders: He did not want to be known as an AIDS icon. He wanted to be known for his art. Your insistence that he is an AIDS icon, that what was meaningful about him was his AIDS, and that only a movie that dwells on his AIDS and how he got his AIDS is acceptable is frankly disgusting.
The sub-headline of the Stranger review is: "It's a ballad of tragic gay cliches." Actually, it's not. It's a movie set in a time before you were born; there's a difference. And if you want more AIDS, more bathhouses, more dick, more repression, more orgies in the dark, etc., well, you're asking for more "tragic gay cliches," not fewer.
Are there problems with the movie? Of course. Is it perfectly accurate on the timeline of events? Of course not. Does it show the four members of Queen equally? Yep. Are three out of the four members of Queen straight? They sure are. (Did it mean a lot to me when I was a little kid discovering Queen through Wayne's World that gay people and straight people could be friends and make music together? Sure did! I was raised in a Christian household.) Is the credited director of the film, Bryan Singer, a weepy and creepy dude, according to press accounts? Yes; and not only that, according to Hollywood Reporter, he got into an on-set altercation with star Rami Malek, and got fired from the shoot six weeks before it ended.
It's nearly a miracle the movie is as good as it is, given how ill-fated it must have seemed at every step of the way. In a weird way, you could argue that backstage drama makes the movie better, because the story depicted on-screen is also about creative differences (almost) getting in the way of artistic greatness.
At the start of Chase's piece about
the film his feces, he writes: "The specter of Queen is everywhere, maintaining an apolitical place in our culture, even though its lead singer, Freddie Mercury, died a very political death—from AIDS complications while Britain was suffering from Thatcherism and America drowning in Reaganomics."
Sounds like that's how you see it, Chase. That's not how Freddie Mercury saw it. He was not into politics; he was not a politician; he was not a gay-rights activist. He was an artist. He was into making art. Focusing on his art (which is where he wanted the focus) instead of where you want the focus (on his AIDS and how he got it) is "straight-washing"? Give the guy a break.
I was thrilled to see a movie about a guy who died of AIDS that didn't treat that as the most important thing about him. I left the theater thinking: I've got to spend some more time with Freddie Mercury's art. Let's all spend a little more time thinking about Freddie Mercury's art.