Fake news about 'fascist' Queen

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Bohemian Rhapsody (M). Director: Bryan Singer. Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello. 134 minutes

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian RhapsodyIn 1993, at the age of 12, I begged my parents for a copy of Queen's Greatest Hits Volume 1 on cassette. I did so on the strength of three songs that I had heard — all of which turned out to be 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.

Over the following two or so years I listened to nothing but Queen, acquiring each of the band's albums on CD, and VHS tapes of various concerts and music video compilations. My collection swelled to include the CD releases of every solo or side project by the band's individual members that I could lay my hands on.

All of which is to say that when it comes to Queen, I am far from a casual listener. Which, it turns out, is both an advantage and disadvantage when it comes to Bohemian Rhapsody, director Bryan Singer's flawed and exuberant biopic about the band and its singularly talented and charismatic frontman, Freddie Mercury.

With its near career-spanning soundtrack, detailed recreations of live performances and numerous nods to seminal moments in the band's history, it hits the nostalgia buttons hard, and well. At the same time, it plays fast and loose with timelines and facts, in ways that either serve the story or simply the filmmakers' hagiographic agenda (original band members Brian May and Roger Taylor executive produce).

It describes an arc that is more or less accurate. It begins with Mercury as a young arts student at Ealing, slightly gawky (Malek sports a spectacular set of fake teeth to mimic Mercury's prolific overbite) but beginning to embrace what would become a trademark flamboyance, to the chagrin of his conservative Parsee parents.

He is enamoured of a local band called Smile, with budding astrophysicist May (Lee) on guitar and dental student Roger Taylor (Hardy) on drums, alongside soon-to-depart lead singer Tim Staffell. The recreation of Smile playing 'Doing All Right' — a fabulous song that would later be recorded for the first Queen album — in a dingy university pub is one of those spine-tingling, fan-pleasing moments.

 

"In 1978 Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh hazarded that Queen might be 'the first truly fascist rock band'. One wonders how he feels about Bohemian Rhapsody's historical revisionism."

 

After Staffell quits and Mercury steps in, we get to see the famous moment where, after battling with a busted mic stand, the new frontman settles for the 'sawn-off' version that would become another trademark throughout his career. Mild-mannered John Deacon (Mazzello) joins the band on bass, and the canonical lineup is complete.

The band scores a couple of hit singles before doubling down on experimentation, culminating in a face-off with their record executive over whether to release the sprawling 'Bohemian Rhapsody' as a single. From there, the film follows the ups and downs of Queen's career, from the creative tensions that strained the band in the early 1980s to its triumphant set at the Live Aid charity concert in 1985.

Some of the artistic license the film takes might be all but invisible to the casual viewer. The band playing the hard-rocking 'Fat Bottomed Girls' during a 1974 tour of US sets the right tone for a part of the film portraying the band's skyrocketing popularity, even if in reality that song wasn't written until four years later. Likewise, May working on 'We Will Rock You' in 1980 while frustrated with an increasingly distracted Mercury's lateness to a recording session works as a story beat — who cares if that song was really released in 1977?

In many ways, this is a fairytale more than a biopic. The timelines are left vague enough that history never gets in the way of a good story. It can, for example, have the band reach near breaking point in some nebulous early-1980s when Mercury splits to record his solo album Mr Bad Guy. In truth, by the time Mr Bad Guy landed in 1985, Taylor already had two solo albums to his name, and May had branched out with Star Fleet Project, a collaboration with Eddie Van Halen.

In the fallout, the film would have it, Queen had not played together 'for years' prior to Live Aid. This makes for a nicely emotional final act as the fractured band reunites for what would become one of the defining moments of its career. Too bad it's utterly false: Queen's sizeable world tour promoting 1984 album The Works had wrapped mere months before the charity concert.

In other ways, the creative choices see Bohemian Rhapsody veer from fairytale to fake news. Displacing 'Fat Bottomed Girls' allows the filmmakers to write out the exploitative publicity stunt for that song and its twin A-side 'Bicycle Race'. By skipping The Works tour en route to Live Aid, they can conveniently ignore how the band flouted the United Nation's cultural boycott against apartheid era South Africa.

Elsewhere, Mercury pitching Queen as a band for outsiders is a disingenuous way to dodge the questions of relevance posed to the grotesquely wealthy and popular band by the rise of punk in the 1970s. In 1978 Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh hazarded that Queen might be 'the first truly fascist rock band'. One wonders how he feels about Bohemian Rhapsody's historical revisionism.

The decision to circumscribe Mercury's bisexuality is needlessly hurtful. It comes in the context of Mercury's longtime relationship with Mary Austin (played here by Boynton). Their fraught relationship and later friendship are touchingly portrayed, yet to use these as a pretext for Mercury's fictitious realisation that he is not really into women is a disservice to him, to Austin and the bisexual community.

Fairytale or fake news — take those as caveats. Bohemian Rhapsody deals sensitively with Mercury's AIDS diagnosis (even if it occurs a couple of years too early) — the kicker is a surely apocryphal encounter with a visibly sick youth who recognises him in the waiting room — and with his revealing the illness to his bandmates (the world wouldn't know until the eve of his death in 1991).

Credit to the filmmakers too that they put their dubious building blocks to the services of a genuinely stirring climax, recreating Queen's 20-minute Live Aid set nearly in full. Wisely, they have Malik lip-sync to recordings of Mercury's vocals; all the actors capture the band members' onstage mannerisms to perfection, but Malik in particular so embodies the physicality and passion of the born performer Mercury that in such moments you can feel like you are there for real. That, at least, is a gift to Queen fans too young to have experienced it.

 

 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Bohemian Rhapsody, Bryan Singer, Rami Malek, Queen, Freddie Mercury

 

 

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Existing comments

Tim, I have appreciated many of your film reviews, but ask now: why the Eureka Street preoccupation with sexuality/gender/LGBITQ matters? People who identify with this categorising enjoy more social acceptance, sympathetic media coverage, legal protection, political influence and economic prosperity than in any previous era, to the point that the case for LGTBIQ 'outsider' status now seems passe. Granted, Eureka Street is left-leaning in political orientation and editorial policy, but it seems its concerns, increasingly, are removed from those of most working class and unemployed Australians, and especially Catholic parents trying to pass on an understanding of their faith that is not subservient to political ideology, left or right.
John | 01 November 2018


Except for the pirate/swashbuckling genre, maps and movies would seem to have little in common. Grayson Perry's work in the niche area of satirical mapping is well-known to map enthusiasts. His 'Island of Bad Art' for example includes such places as the Gulf of Understanding, the Tired Outlook and the Lack of Commitment. All themes in many movies, including possibly this one.
Pam | 02 November 2018


John -- Mercury's sexuality was a major part of who he was and it's also an aspect that has been a topic of public discussion at length both while he was alive and since his death. I suggest that including just 1 paragraph about Mercury's sexuality, 1 out of an article about 16 paragraphs long, is anything but being overly preoccupied with Mercury's sexuality! Your comment, however, does seem to be overly preoccupied with the topic, given all of the other really interesting stuff included in this review (which was a great read by the way).
Meg Grey | 02 November 2018


A good review Tim. This is the story of a man and a band. It is not a documentary. There is some artistic license and if it follows the cliché of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story, so what? It isn’t the first to do that. “The Jolson Story” is one of my favourite movies but it too tells the story of an iconic singer only loosely based on the truth. Queen fans like me can enjoy the story (and the music) for what it is and not worry about what it isn’t. I never thought of Queen as a fascist band before and I will have to think a bit more about what that means musically. In response to John, it would be hard to review a movie about Freddie Mercury and not discuss his sexuality. It is part of what made him who he was. To ignore it would do us a disservice and to be fair, I don’t think Tim overstated it at all.
Brett | 02 November 2018


John, I suppose you think aborigines, African Americans and child abuse victims should also just stop moaning, forget about their grievances and move on too? God help us.
Aurelius | 02 November 2018


John, those who are working class, unemployed, or Catholic parents may also have concerns about LGBTI issues. Particularly so if they are themselves in the LGBTI category or have children who are. All the different categories are not mutually exclusive. It is far, far, far too early to describe LGBTI issues as passe in my opinion. Things are better than they were ten or fifteen years ago, it is true, but that is so incredibly short a time! As a Catholic parent of two wonderful adults who are same-gender-attracted, Eureka Street is a haven to me in a Christian world where some see 'the gay people' as aberrant.
BPLF | 03 November 2018


Not so, Aurelius, and I can't see that your speculations should follow from what I've said.
John | 04 November 2018


John, I'm not sure what you perceive the real life situation of "people who identify with this/LGBTI category" to be, but we are not all Qantas CEOs and we are not all knighted rockstars like Elton John. Neither are we all attention-seeking, g-string wearing, whip-cracking, parade-marching exhibitionists. Some of us are faithful Catholics just trying to make a living and keep our jobs and often already fragile and tenuous social/professional/worshipping networks in balance. And as BPLF has already stated - it could be your child struggling for acceptance for somehow belonging to this category (whether by choice, genetics or environment0
Aurelius | 05 November 2018


Aurelius, I know a number of people of the latter kind you describe; they have my support. However, I draw a line at those who distort or campaign against Catholic teachings, and whose affluence, social status and influence do not identify them as the poor and marginalised in the Church or society, with prior claims on social justice. Your endorsement of BPLF's point is well taken, as is your obvious respect for the Catholic faith.
John | 06 November 2018


John, the preoccupation with moral issues for LGBTI people by some sectors of religious organisations is a distortion of Catholic teaching in itself. It misrepresents Jesus emphasis in the scriptures.
Aurelius | 07 November 2018


This review is spot on. The film definitely has its flaws and blind spots but it's great fun and poignant. I saw it with a group of (working class) friends who are not normally favourably disposed to people that are same-sex attracted. The film made them realise how terrible it must have been for Mercury to have lived in the public eye for so long, worried that his his 'secret' sexuality might be exposed and bring him down. It's fair to say that the film is a success (for me) on these grounds alone.
Jim | 08 November 2018


I am a middle-aged parent of four and saw the film with most of may family and one of their partners. Across the divide of age the film was universally enjoyed! Your review is thought provoking and an interesting read. The music, the story and the emotion were great - accuracy in spirit and not letter sometimes makes for a ripping yarn. Anyone thinking it was a documentary should heed your warning.
MARLO DRAKE-BEMELMANS | 08 November 2018


Perhaps, Aurelius - but so, I think, would presenting the gospel as if somehow human sexuality were exempt from human fallenness and Christ's call to conversion.
John | 09 November 2018


So why the morbidly discrimatory emphasis on LGBTI morality, John? The gospel calls us all to be faithful in our relationships, and chasity before marriage is the Catholic teaching. Why discriminate against gay people and seek provisions to discriminate?
Aurelius | 13 November 2018


Aurelius, Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage is based, as you know, on scripture and natural law morality. I'm not aware of the LGBTIQ movement accepting the Church's teaching on these matters, nor the Church's refusal to reduce peoples' self-definition exclusively to sexual/gender categorising (as evidenced in the recent Bishop's Synod in Rome).
John | 13 November 2018


John, neither am I aware of the heterosexual movement accepting church teaching on many moral issues, but we don’t see any move to discriminate against heterosexual teachers or students who may be living unchastely.
Aurelius | 14 November 2018


Aurelius, anyone in a Catholic school who undermines the teachings and practices that define its ethos is liable to be held accountable. In my experience it is rare that school authorities exercise sanctions in the areas of sexual and marital irregularities; and never, in fact, on the basis of same-sex attraction. Where, specifically, is the "discrimination" you allege?
John | 15 November 2018


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