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Just who was Freddie Mercury? Ask someone old enough to remember the superstar lead singer of the 1970s and 1980s rock band Queen, and you’ll probably get one of two different answers: dynamic singer and songwriter, or flamboyant libertine who died of AIDS.
The new film Bohemian Rhapsody portrays Mercury (played by Rami Malek) as, above all else, a gentle soul and faithful friend. This warm remembrance has caused some critics, who presumably were hoping the film would celebrate Mercury’s artistic and moral nonconformity, to gripe. But if Bohemian Rhapsody has its facts straight, Mercury long tried to remain faithful to Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), whom he called the love of his life. He put a diamond ring on her finger, they lived together (but didn’t marry), and cared deeply for each other. They didn’t share a Christian union, but for years she was his “Somebody to Love.” Then, as fans will argue, Mercury either lost his way or found himself.
Born Farrokh Bulsara into a Parsi family from Zanzibar, Mercury in 1970 is living in a small London apartment. The film covers the 15-year period from just before he starts on a music career to the Live Aid concert in 1985, where Queen takes the stage with other rock icons at a thronging Wembley Stadium. Before he finds fame, Mercury finds a true friend in Mary, to whom he eventually admits his conflicted nature.
“I think I’m bisexual,” he tells Mary.
“Freddie,” she replies somberly, understanding their relationship won’t last, “you’re gay.” (Except for kisses, no sexual activity is shown on camera. The PG-13 rating is for suggestive material, drug content, and language.)
The film plays up Mercury’s loyalty to Mary. In multiple scenes, Mercury rejects sexual advances from men, including from the band’s manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Fame and egotism gradually consume Mercury, though, and he leaves Mary (amicably) and the band (not so amicably), whom he has called his “family.” Almost as reluctant as Mercury to state the obvious, with little fanfare the film eventually reveals that he has had many homosexual dalliances. But that’s not how we should remember Mercury, director Bryan Singer seems to be saying.
True to its title—taken from Queen’s signature song, an eclectic mix of hard rock and opera—Bohemian Rhapsody is a spectacular production with many fascinating moments: Mercury’s four-octave vocal range comes as a physiological consequence of his extra incisors and overbite. The film also tells the backstories to some of Queen’s hits; it’s nearly impossible not to play air drums to the soundtrack in your theater seat. The film ends by re-creating Queen’s entire 20-minute set at Live Aid, true to such details as the six Pepsi and two beer cups atop Mercury’s piano. Most impressive.
Correction: Most impressive is Malek. He nails Mercury’s mannerisms and exudes mesmerizing intensity. He gives a performance unlike any I’ve seen in a long time.
I’ve always appreciated Mercury’s great talent, but am saddened once again, as I was when he died in 1991 at age 45. It’s difficult to celebrate when a soul comes and goes outside of Christ (apparently). But the film should help us remember that we’ll never be without somebody to love: Children around the world, like the ones Live Aid meant to rescue, are still starving.