Of myths and men

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“Bo­hemian Rhap­sody,” more than most 2018 films, has had to jus­tify its ex­is­tence. What does this film have to say about Fred­die Mer­cury and Queen that de­mands a fea­ture-length stu­dio re­lease? The film has spent al­most a decade mak­ing its way to the screen, stuck in de­vel­op­ment hell, plagued by cast­ing and cre­ative con­tro­ver­sies and it seems im­me­di­ately sig­nif­i­cant to note that it is pro­duced by Jim Beach, the band’s long-time man­ager and fea­tures sur­viv­ing mem­bers Brian May and Roger Taylor as cre­ative con­sul­tants. The sub­text, or even the text, of their roles in the film im­me­di­ately sug­gest the film as a text that is Queen as fil­tered through the eyes of Queen, which rather than os­ten­si­bly pro­vid­ing com­fort sug­gests some amount of gate­keep­ing, es­pe­cially in re­la­tion to its famed front­man, Fred­die.

Mer­cury’s place in pop-cul­ture is, per­haps, big­ger than Queen. This is both be­cause of his inim­itable flamboyance as well as be­cause of his queer­ness in a pro­fes­sion that of­ten man­i­fests it­self in hy­per-mas­culin­ity and at a time that was less than friendly to the LGBT com­mu­nity. Mer­cury died in 1991 due to AIDS com­pli­ca­tions; it is one of the high-pro­file deaths from HIV/AIDS. Mer­cury’s life is a big one, and one that feels so larger than life that no one text (filmic or lit­er­ary) seems ca­pa­ble of harnessing it. Mer­cury’s legacy is in­ex­tri­ca­bly bound to Queen, but a tale of Fred­die seems sep­a­rate from Queen in cul­tural ways that, even be­fore the film’s re­lease, the ques­tion of its ap­proach to the per­sonal life of Fred­die be­came an is­sue of con­tro­versy. If “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” seeks to use Mer­cury as a fig­ure in its text, it owes it to Fred­die to present the truth of him. But what is truth?

“Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” opens with a tight close-up on the face of Rami Malek as Fred­die Mer­cury. Ex­cept it’s not his face, re­ally, that’s the fo­cus. It’s his eyes. The shot is so tight, the rest of his fea­tures are ob­scured. We cut to a shot of his feet and other parts of his body as he gets dressed, his face con­sis­tently ob­scured through­out. In­ter­spersed au­dio through­out in­forms us that we are in 1985 and brief cut­aways to the Wem­b­ley Sta­dium in­di­cate that we are head­ing to Queen’s Live Aid per­for­mance. As Mer­cury leaves his house, ar­rives at the sta­dium, dresses and then strips as we con­tinue to watch him from the side or the back as the strains of the band’s “Some­body to Love” plays over the scene. Decked out in his trade­mark tight jeans, the white vest and jew­ellery, we see him saunter on stage and we cut – fifteen years back – t0 1970.

This brief open­ing is one of the mo­ments in “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” that works well. Beyond the ini­tial shot of his eyes, it im­i­tates the in­tro­duc­tion to an­other larger-than-life mu­si­cal fig­ure – the fic­tional Dolly Levi in Gene Kelly’s 1969 “Hello, Dolly!”. The film opens with shots of Dolly’s shoes, her dress, her hands, keeping us in sus­pense un­til with a turn of the head Bar­bra Streisand gazes out be­at­if­i­cally as us as she in­tro­duces her­self to us – the inim­itable Dolly Levi, the great fixer. Fred­die Mer­cury is not Dolly Levi, and “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” is not “Hello, Dolly!” but the idea of myth­mak­ing and fan­tasy seem in­te­gral to the mu­si­cal biopics in ways that are fas­ci­nat­ing even as it at­tempts to har­ness the his­tory and the le­gend of the larger-than-life Fred­die Mer­cury into a 134-minute film.

“Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” is a PG-13 film about a man who ex­ists in his­tory as a sex­u­ally ex­pres­sive fig­ure. That this man is queer (whether ho­mo­sex­ual or bi­sex­ual re­mains the sub­ject of de­bate) presents a big­ger is­sue when Hollywood stu­dios are of­ten am­biva­lent, at best, about rep­re­sent­ing queer­ness on screen in ex­plicit or sin­cere ways. A story about the life of Mer­cury, a man no­tably pri­vate about his life all the way his death, would al­most cer­tainly be forced to wres­tle with the ideas of sex­ual pol­i­tics and sex­ual iden­tity of the seven­ties and eight­ies, ex­cept “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” isn’t re­ally a film about Mer­cury’s life. Or even a film about Mer­cury the man. It’s a film about Mer­cury the myth.

Rami Malek, as Mer­cury, un­der­stands this bet­ter than any other as­pect of the film in a per­for­mance that does not im­i­tate the real Fred­die Mer­cury (he doesn’t quite look like him for ex­am­ple, and he lip-syncs over the tracks)

but in­stead sug­gests and em­bod­ies him in a way that’s con­stantly wink­ing but never in­ter­ested in mimicry. Mer­cury, like many larger than life fig­ures (and like the fic­tional Dolly Levi) must be all things to all peo­ple both within the film’s time­line and in the con­tem­po­rary re­sponse to the film. His per­for­mance is slip­pery but not il­lu­sory. Malek nails both the ten­der­ness of the film’s idea of Mer­cury as well as the ar­ro­gant bravura. It’s a per­for­mance of paradox that works bet­ter than any­thing in the film, and is best dis­tilled in the film’s recre­ation of Queen’s set at Live Aid, where the en­tire se­quence is recre­ated on screen and mar­ried with the au­dio from the real event.

It’s the best thing, then, that the film ends on that Live Aid se­quence, which em­pha­sises the ide­o­log­i­cal sug­ges­tion of Fred­die. It’s about Fred­die as a con­cept. The film is very much about a sil­hou­ette of a man. Fred­die seems con­sis­tently un­know­able un­til the end. What comes across is not a heretic dis­avowal of Fred­die’s gay­ness, but a melan­cholic tone of re­gret­ful nos­tal­gia. The film never en­gages with what his queer­ness means to him, and by end­ing at Live Aid we never watch Mer­cury wrestling with the last years of his life as a queer man with AIDS in the ho­mo­pho­bic eight­ies.

If any­thing, “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” is shack­led by its PG-13 rat­ing. The film is not coy about Mer­cury’s queer­ness but is coy about sex­u­al­ity in the way of many stu­dio films. It can­not help but be so when it is tale about a li­bidi­nous man whose story is be­ing fil­tered through a ma­jor stu­dio. The level of verisimil­i­tude we look for in films based on real events is al­ways in­trigu­ing. “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” is not a po­lit­i­cal film, but it’s clear how Mer­cury’s queer­ness and death by HIV presents a cul­tural marker of the place of sex­u­al­ity out­side of het­ero­sex­ual norms in Amer­i­can pop cul­ture. Po­lit­i­cal his­to­ries are more fraught when it comes to bend­ing be­cause of the weight they have, and more re­cent po­lit­i­cal his­tory is par­tic­u­larly at the mercy be­cause of the tem­po­ral close­ness. Amer­i­can so­ci­ety has still not reck­oned with the role its govern­ment and anti-queer­ness played in the demise of a gen­er­a­tion of men in the eight­ies. The topic is a sen­si­tive one, and yet “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” is so em­phat­i­cally rooted in Fred­die as myth rather than Fred­die as man.

But, what­ever your al­le­giances, “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” isn’t in­ter­ested in watch­ing Fred­die Mer­cury suf­fer. The film is about the myth of a man—a man whose mythol­ogy is ever-present and ever ex­ist­ing. That “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” chooses to end with the tri­umphant Live Aid per­for­mance rather than Fred­die grap­pling with his HIV di­ag­no­sis, I sup­pose in the most su­per­fi­cial of ways might read as its lack of in­ter­est in his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity but it seems like a bad faith ar­gu­ment and rather in­dica­tive of the film’s own in­ter­est in em­pha­sis­ing the myth and the man. As a live per­for­mance of Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ (live footage of the real band) plays over the cred­its, the film seems to em­pha­sise Fred­die’s place as a ce­les­tial be­ing. Fred­die lives on, the film seems to ar­gue, and for all its im­per­fec­tions that the­sis seems sat­is­fac­tory.

“Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” is cur­rently play­ing at Caribbean Cinemas Guyana.

Email your re­sponses to Andrew at al­masydk@gmail.com or send him a Tweet at Depart­edAvi­a­tor.

Rami Malek as Fred­die Mer­cury in “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody”

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