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A silhouette of a man

Rami Malek stars as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. (Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox)

DVD

A silhouette of a man

The sanitizing and straight-washing of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury

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.

Comments

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  • Ken Clark
    Posted: Tue, 02/12/2019 11:29 am

    While this article is informative, it's also unnecessarily critical. The move clearly showed Freddy Mercury was gay, had many partners, participated in group gay sex, was heavily into drugs and parties, and anyone who knows anything about Queen knows he had Aids. That alone makes it hard to recommend to other Christians. But I grew up listening to bands like Queen and in the span of one 2 hour film it would not be possible to show every detail of his life. He had creative genius, the music was entertaining and the acting in the film was terrific. He was no role model at all, but that's not what I go see any Hollywood film for, in the very few instances I go, and if I want all the ugly details I'll read one of the books on his life.

  • Trumpetly Speaking
    Posted: Tue, 02/12/2019 11:56 am

    All of that is true, but I wouldn't say it supports your contention that the review was "unnecessarily" critical.  Just because the movie included his gay proclivities and lifestyle, doesn't mean they were framed as a liability.  The fact that what negatives were included were glorified seriously detracts from the movie's effort to accurately present the life of this man.  Young people can't be expected to "know anything about Queen."  This movie could mislead them into thinking this is the way to a successful career in music.  They need to know all the facts, presented in all their death-dealing reality.

  • Tuck
    Posted: Tue, 02/12/2019 12:45 pm

    I did not find the article overly critical. It reminded me of an Adree' Peterson article. Took some digging but I recommend 'The end of a thing' published 7-27-17 by Peterson. 

    “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (Ecclesiastes 7:8).

    When a film, book, etc covers an individual in his prime you have a different perspective of that individual compared to complete coverage to the end. 

    Peterson looks at Oscar Wilde, the Freddie Mercury of his day. 

  • Ronbrewer99
    Posted: Wed, 02/13/2019 09:21 am

    I didn't see the movie; largely becuase of concerns I had that were confirmed by the article. It troubles me when Christians give a pass to entertainment and entertainers who are so obviously not aligned with a Christian worldview. 

  • SAWGUNNER
    Posted: Wed, 02/13/2019 09:36 am

    And now you know THE REST OF THE STORY..

    and it is as sickening as it is tragic. 

    When I lived in Austin I knew and counted as friends several gay men. It was a given that many of these young men regaled me with tales of aloof distant fathers. Many of the gay guys were sons of ram rod straight strict authoritarians; rigid unemotional or distant career military men. If homosexuality among males is linked to a bad altered or non-existent relationship with fathers (and I believe that is the case) we would all do well to follow the injunction of James Dobson who said point blank: "Hug your son or another man will"

  •  Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Wed, 02/20/2019 12:20 am

    I would not have watched this movie, except for this article.  I never really liked Queen and didn't enjoy the movie.  However, I guess I would ask the author of this article how much more sex, drugs, decline into sickness, reclusion, and death the movie should have added?  Movies are always a let down for those who read the book or know the truth.  Given that it was wholly depressing, I wonder how more depravity would have improved it?

  •  phillipW's picture
    phillipW
    Posted: Fri, 02/22/2019 01:09 pm

    "Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it."  Hebrews 2:1

    Having watched this movie with my wife, and her sudden fascination with Queen's music, I am reminded of the above verse from scripture.  Regardless of Mercury's sexual proclivities, et al, and whatever other abhorrent sins he committed, I have to remind myself to remain focused on Jesus Christ in everything that I say, do, think and feel.  The fact that Bohemian Rhapsody is so wildly successful speaks more to how far the "church" has drifted away from Jesus Christ, and how little faith in Christ remains in the "church".

    What I mean is that we are now living in a day and age when Mercury's lifestyle and behavior is no longer villified and scorned, but is actually celebrated and supported by culture.  This is the drifting away that the writer of Hebrews talks about, where sin is celebrated, and those that oppose sin are ostracized from society.