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‘A Cloak Of Tenebrous Innuendo’

Franklin DiSalvo

For all its bombastic showmanship, Brian Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody proves most memorable in the quiet intervals between the splitting chords and soaring vocals of its subject, the brilliant 70s British band Queen. Entire films could have centered on these tacit moments, such as when Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury decides to change his name, or begins to grapple with his queerness, or admits to his bandmates that he’s living with AIDS.

This final scene is most startling of the three, not because too few movies engage with the taboo topic of HIV/AIDS, but because conversations like these so often devolve into the weepy sentimentalism of bad Victorian novels. Bohemian Rhapsody, in contrast, ensures the moment remains unadorned: Freddie embraces his bandmates, they join together in an understated show of solidarity, and life goes on. He’s not reduced to the monstrosity of early modern prodigy books or relegated to the marvellous world of freak shows. His body is simply prone to vagaries—however severe—like everyone else’s.

A spinal-cord injury five years ago taught me how important such a normalizing response to corporeal aberrance actually is. Suddenly, my body was the object of searching stares from visitors who would make the pilgrimage to my hospital room nightly, knock with trepidation, and peer their heads around the doorjamb as if to witness some rare phenomenon. Make no mistake: I was thankful for their support. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had become part-oddity, part-oracle—dispensing wisdom about the meaning of life—and only partly myself, the scared teenager who had just finished his first year of college when a pick-up truck careened into him as he was bicycling across the street.

Some people would cry when they gazed on me in my hospital gown, which rustled as I writhed to shift position, fecklessly, my legs immobilized. Others took pains to stifle their precipitate sobs. Others would try their hand at reassurance: “thankfully, there’s still hope that you won’t end up in a wheelchair.” As if this is the ultimate curse.

And in the minds of many, it is, just as people the globe over still think of AIDS as a death sentence which should elicit nothing but despair worthy of Dante’s Inferno.

Yet those who have reclaimed the term “poz” (HIV positive) have another story to tell, one often rife with adversity and fear and anxiety, but one which doesn’t evince the fatalistic doomsdayism that has dogged individuals in this community, as well as those of us who live life with other disabilities, for so long. Publications like POZ and Plus highlight various HIV-positive advocates and make information on the condition more accessible; gay hook-up apps—namely, Grindr and Hornet—are actively encouraging dialogue about HIV/AIDS, with the latter helping positive individuals meet one another; memoirs and movies concerning HIV—e.g. The Normal Heart—have claimed mainstream attention; and public figures from Broadway composer Jerry Herman to South African Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron have become increasingly vocal about their own experiences of living with HIV.

Perhaps it is from these kinds of trailblazers that Bohemian Rhapsody finds the courage to feature an alternative narrative about chronic, and progressive, illness that crescendos to the triumphant finale of the historical Live-Aid concert in 1985. When the four-piece Queen—Freddie Mercury (Remi Malek), Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Dean (Joseph Mazzello)—finishes its set with their iconic “We Are the Champions,” guitars rip, the final chord resounds, and the audience avers its rapturous admiration. Never does Freddie seem more of a legend than during this song, which deftly showcases a fusion of his psychosomatic vulnerability—the subtle crack of his voice, the abrupt cessation of musical phrases—with the fist that at last jets into the air, a metonym for the indomitable human spirit. You can’t help but feel a part of something almost sacrosanct as it ascends towards the sky and the dignity of the individual, however flamboyant, however sick, however atypical, is brought into staggeringly sharp relief.

Events leading up to this cinematic gem of an ending, however, leave the viewer far less fulfilled. At one point, Freddie defends “Bohemian Rhapsody” to the band’s recalcitrant producer—played only somewhat comically by Mike Myers—by suggesting it’s an “epic poem.” The song may be. The movie is unfortunately not.

This is not so much because of the formulaic screenplay by Anthony McCarten, though at times it proves painfully pat—as when the prodigal Freddie abruptly decides to make amends with his bandmates after a fleeting visit from Mary Austin, his former fiancé and enduring friend. Epic poetry, in all fairness, is nothing if not formulaic. The real lesson the production team should have learned from this most esteemed of genres is that a work’s beginning must be carefully selected. Homer’s Iliad doesn’t start with Paris’s abduction of Helen, though her kidnapping ostensibly sets the Trojan War in motion, nor does Virgil’s Aeneid commence with its eponymous hero’s childhood. Milton goes so far as to begin Paradise Lost with an already-expelled Satan awaking in Hell. Surely this, the blind poet realizes, will impel readers to sit up and pay attention.

Bohemian Rhapsody, in contrast, finds its stride with Freddie’s employment at Heathrow—after a brief flash-forward to the Live-Aid concert—and somehow manages to reach the near-end of his career. As a result of this overambitious scope, the most intriguing moments of the plot are generally reduced to little more than hints. We catch but a glimpse of Freddie’s tenuous relationship with his parents and only select glimpses of Queen’s creative process. These are often little more than etiologies of the band’s most legendary innovations: the shrill Galileos of “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the audience’s percussive participation in “We Will Rock You.”

Most problematic, perhaps, is the mere hint of Freddie Mercury’s sexual adventurousness. If Bohemian Rhapsody focused on a promiscuous straight man, the filmmakers would almost certainly have been willing to show more than the transient image of a gay club or bathroom stall where Freddie hooks up with a horny farmer. Malek’s masterful portrayal of Queen’s lead singer—down to his mannerisms, telling facial expressions, and accent—can only take the character so far in the way of gritty realism. The film’s superficial approach halts further progress in this direction, and at the end of the day, the Freddie Mercury of Bohemian Rhapsody finds himself shrouded in a cloak of tenebrous innuendo.

Immediately after the first trailer was released, in fact, LGBTQ+ groups began criticizing Bohemian Rhapsody for potential “straightwashing” what they suspected would be little more than a gloss over Freddie’s complex sexual orientation—as these things are wont to be—and general queerness. The real Freddie Mercury almost certainly saw men and women at the same time, frequented gay establishments often, and identified himself as bisexual. Malek’s Freddie does too, but this is undercut by the film itself, which feels most confident when portraying isolated aspects of his surprisingly integrated sexuality at any one time. That the singer’s homosexual desires manifest themselves either as tentative experiments or hedonistic rampages—compared to his heterosexual love for the girl-next-door Mary—compounds this imbalance. Too often they’re at odds with one another, and we’re left with the impression that never the twain shall meet. What cannot be argued, though, is that Bohemian Rhapsody refrains from accentuating its icon’s queerness, which radiates through in his dress, eccentricities—including his penchant for feline friends—and affect.

I am not, it should be said, of the opinion that films (or novels of historical fiction) must kowtow to the biographical strictures of their subjects’ lives: fiction is, after all, just that. But the importance of unfettered artistic representation turns turgid when a particular portrayal obfuscates a marginalized identity in favor of a normative one. Although Freddie surges onto the screen with much of his unique personality, when it comes downs to the issue of sexuality itself, the film relies upon facile, and thus more marketable, storytelling.

The real problem, I suspect, is not that Singer balks at the details of Freddie’s life, but that because so many elements of it are interesting, he cannot select a heart for the film. I’d like to suggest one: the challenges of surrounding oneself with good counselors and confidants. As a theme, it’s mobilized the creative impulses of artists from William Shakespeare to Alice Walker. It’s present in the screenplay already, in need only of foregrounding.

Many individuals confused by their sexual orientation even struggle with this very challenge: after finally accepting my homosexuality, for instance, I came out to acquaintances first, and only later to closer friends. It was fear that most influenced this ostensibly illogical secrecy—terror that I would unwittingly dislodge the true anchors in my life. Several lonely months of exhausting dissemblance and social withdrawal ensued as a result. That is, until I accepted, rather than fled from, the vulnerability which necessarily accompanies my non-normative body—with its wobbly gate and passion for men—in an ableist, heteronormative world, and committed myself to the interpersonal relationships with those who love me most in response. The strategy paid off in spades, but not until I came to terms with the petrifying realization that my body, on its own, is not self-sufficient, not integrated, not a well-oiled machine.

Bohemian Rhapsody suggests that Freddie Mercury wrestled with similar a terror that estranged him from the band and Mary and impelled him to prostrate himself to the manipulative Paul Prenter (Allan Leach). But it remains just that: a suggestion. If only Bohemian Rhapsody had plumbed the psychological depths of Freddie’s decision to ally himself with Paul rather than trusted friends, his eventual reunion with bandmates and friends, and his late-in-life, quasi-sexual relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCasker), it would have been a far more poignant film.

What we’re left with instead is (shallow) entertainment, propelled along by the motor of Malek’s sensational acting and Queen’s invigorating music and the sense of hope that can persist through even the most trying of times. But still, in spite of this—or perhaps because of this, since its shortcomings point us to more enduring questions of loneliness, shame and the kind of love that’s possible amidst difference—Bohemian Rhapsody is worth your time.

 

Franklin DiSalvo is reading for an MSt in Greek and Latin languages and literature, although his real passion is Milton.