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The canonization of Freddie Mercury is now complete.
Making the case for his beatification is the box-office hit Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic released in U.S. theaters on Nov. 2 last year and on DVD today. The movie traces the early life of the lead singer of Queen, the band’s decline, and its triumphant re-emergence in a 1985 Live Aid performance. Some critics and music historians have called that 20-minute set the greatest single rock performance of all time.
The case the movie makes is strong, at least in pop-culture terms. As a rock band frontman, Mercury was no backbencher. He could stand toe-to-toe with Mick Jagger and David Bowie: With a range that approached four octaves, his vocal power far surpassed them. No less a rock god than the Who’s Roger Daltrey called Mercury “the best virtuoso rock ’n’ roll singer of all time.”
And in that all-important pop-culture measurement, money, Queen was second only to the Beatles in terms of Brit-pop success. The band sold more than 150 million albums. The movie Wayne’s World, with its iconic head-banging sequence, and a hysterical cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by the Muppets transmitted the Queen mythology to new generations. Songs such as “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” are staples at sporting events the world over, making the band a household name globally and generating a perpetual revenue stream. When Mercury died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991, his net worth was estimated at $60 million (well over $100 million in today’s dollars). But royalties and ongoing record sales have generated at least another $100 million since his death.
The movie Bohemian Rhapsody celebrates all this, ending with the triumphant Live Aid performance, one that is riveting even 35 years later.
But there is, of course, more to the story.
Farrokh Bulsara, the boy who would become Freddie Mercury, was born in the British protectorate of Zanzibar (now Tanzania) in 1946. His parents were Parsees, Persians whose ancestors had fled the expansion of Islam in the seventh century in part so they could continue to practice Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions on earth and the religion in which Freddie Mercury was raised.
Many Zoroastrians sum up their religion with the phrase, “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” The religion had strict prohibitions against homosexual behavior. The most sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism is called the Avesta, which reads in part: “The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as woman lies with mankind, is a man that is a daeva [demon]. This man is a worshipper of the daevas, a male paramour of the daevas.” In short, in traditional Zoroastrianism, homosexuality is demonic, a form of devil worship.
This upbringing explains, in large part, why Mercury never publicly outed himself during his lifetime. Early in his adult life he was engaged to be married to his muse Mary Austin. They broke off their engagement after Mercury admitted to multiple homosexual affairs, but they remained close throughout his life. Queen guitarist Brian May told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that in the early days of Queen, he and Mercury shared hotel rooms. “I knew who Freddie slept with in the early days,” May said. “And they weren’t men.”
But after his breakup with Mary Austin, and after the band became successful, Mercury became unmoored. A fascinating biography of Mercury, Somebody to Love by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, documents in detail how sex and drugs poured out of the rock ’n’ roll. After many shows, Mercury would take a man back to his room for sex. Estimates of the number of sex partners Mercury had during his lifetime range from hundreds to several thousand.
None of these aspects of Freddie Mercury’s life made it into the sanitized version offered by Bohemian Rhapsody.
His drug use also rose to epic proportions. At one point in the late 1970s, Mercury’s drug purchases reached 7,000 British pounds per week. That was the equivalent of about $15,000, or about $45,000 in 2018 dollars. Every week.
These details are also conveniently omitted from Bohemian Rhapsody.
Mercury did not, of course, consume all these drugs. Many were consumed by a growing entourage without which Mercury could grow despondent, lonely, compulsive. Biographers Richards and Langthorne suggest that his loneliness also contributed to his prodigious sexual promiscuity.
Money did allow Mercury to buy friends, or at least to have people around him. Example: For Mercury’s 35th birthday, held in his newly acquired New York City apartment, he flew 100 friends over on a supersonic Concorde jet. That was 1981, when a round-trip flight would have cost about $4,000, or more than $10,000 in today’s dollars. Once in New York, the guests enjoyed Cristal champagne—worth about $60,000 in 1981 prices—stored in a huge refrigerator in Mercury’s apartment. According to Richards and Langthorne, he told his friends “not to worry about the expense, promising them that the only thing they would have to pay for was the condoms.” The party went on for five days.
Perhaps the most horrific aspect of Mercury’s character was that he likely had sex with hundreds of men after he became HIV-positive, probably in 1982. Many of those sexual relationships occurred after Mercury either knew or strongly suspected he carried the AIDS virus. According to Richards and Langthorne, Mercury took multiple AIDS tests in 1984 and 1985, with likely positive results, but continued to have sex until he started having symptoms of full-blown AIDS late in 1985.
Again, these details are omitted from Bohemian Rhapsody.
Richards and Langthorne place some of the blame for Mercury’s behavior at the feet of his parents, who shipped him off to boarding school when he was a child. The distance left him with a tenuous relationship with his parents, especially his father. It is a credit to Richards and Langthorne that they draw attention to this significant point in their biography of Mercury, since gay ideologues resist the notion that a gay man’s relationship with his father contributes in any way to his sexual orientation.
The movie downplays any possibility that Mercury was gay or an addict because of any environmental factors: Instead, it suggests he was gay because he was gay, and that his creative output was somehow linked to his addictive personality. That’s just the way enormously gifted people are. If the world is unwilling to accept the excesses of artists, then it will be deprived of such artistic masterpieces as “Fat Bottomed Girls.”
These falsehoods may be what makes the sentimental ending of Bohemian Rhapsody so frustrating to those who know the true story of Freddie Mercury. The movie climaxes with Queen’s triumphal set at Live Aid in 1985 in front of more than 70,000 people and as many as 1 billion watching worldwide on TV. However, it fails to show Mercury’s decline into sickness, reclusion, and death.
The movie also suggests a reconciliation between Mercury and his father, implying the father’s acceptance of the son’s homosexuality. In reality, Mercury hid his homosexuality from his father until the end, often making up elaborate fictions to explain his live-in companions. Mercury told his father that one of his gay lovers was the gardener. One former lover remained with Freddie as a chef. Others were personal assistants.
Also whitewashed is the fact that Mercury’s prodigious promiscuity came at a pivotal moment in the AIDS crisis. In fact, one of Mercury’s sex partners was John Murphy, a companion and lover of the infamous Gaëtan Dugas. The story of Gaëtan Dugas is well-documented in Randy Shilts’ book And the Band Played On. Shilts labeled Dugas “Patient Zero,” the patient from whom all other AIDS cases sprang. That label is probably not accurate, but it is fair to say that Dugas, Murphy, and their sex partners, a circle that included Freddie Mercury, were powerful forces in the early spread of HIV, a disease that has killed more than 35 million people worldwide.
It’s hard to say precisely why Bohemian Rhapsody left out all of these unsavory aspects of Mercury’s life. It’s possible the film’s producers did not want to sully the name of a gay icon. It’s also possible that money was a motivation. To come even close to reality, the film would have been rated R, a kiss of death at the box office. The PG-13 rating of Bohemian Rhapsody meant the lucrative teen market was a viable audience.
And the strategy was a wild financial success. At year-end, Bohemian Rhapsody, with a production budget of about $50 million, was closing in on the $200 million mark in the United States alone. And the movie, like the band Queen in real life, is much more popular overseas. Worldwide ticket sales are currently well over $800 million and climbing. The movie is now one of the Top 100 highest-grossing movies of all time.
But that commercial success has not prevented critics from speaking out. Alexis Petridis, writing in The Guardian, described the portrayal of Mercury as “sanitized.” He wrote, “Bohemian Rhapsody is a film that plays so fast and loose with the truth, it ends up seeming faintly ridiculous.” IndieWire gave the film a D+, calling it “royally embarrassing.”
IndieWire also put its finger on what is perhaps the greatest tragedy of Bohemian Rhapsody when it concluded, “Queen’s music may have been unclassifiable, but their movie is as trite and textbook as it gets. ... It’s par for the course in this terrible and self-indulgent piece of revisionist history, where the legend is always prioritized over the truth, even when the truth was surely far more interesting.”
—A shorter version of this review appears in the March 2, 2019, print issue.