by Amber Coombs, Level 3 History Undergraduate

Nearly 50 years after the formation of one of the greatest rock bands of all time, Bryan Singer (later replaced by Dexter Fletcher) has directed a thought-provoking biopic on the career of Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody. Rami Malek, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy and Gwilym Lee star as the band’s four members: Mercury, Deacon, Taylor and May respectively.

The film follows Freddie Mercury’s relationship with his fiancé, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), and the rise of Queen’s fame, through to his AIDS diagnosis, and ultimately, their ‘greatest live performance in the history of rock music’, Live Aid. Some film critics have dubbed the film merely a “tribute act”, downplaying the themes Bohemian Rhapsody touches on, including homosexuality and the AIDS crisis, which will be discussed in this blog post. Whilst Singer fails to discuss these themes in depth, they serve as a reminder of 1970s society and the difficulties homosexual men faced, making this film more than a “tribute act”, but one embedded with historical context.

To increase their audience, Queen embarked on a series of local concerts and television performances. One appearance Singer focuses on was their set on Top of the Pops in 1974. At the height of its popularity in the 1970s, the BBC show received ratings of around 15 million viewers, meaning bands could showcase their music to approximately one quarter of Britain’s population. In the film, Queen are told by a producer they cannot play live as Top of the Pops’ practice was to pre-record their guests. However, the band believed this to be inauthentic for audiences, yet still appeared on the show. Miming on the show was initially banned in 1966 due to an intervention by the Musicians’ Union, although bands still performed with a backing track until 1980. This scene signifies the start of many debates for the group with the music press. Whilst this scene may be considered insignificant, it identifies a challenge some musicians faced when appearing on television, to either publicise records and sacrifice their musical integrity, or hinder their success.

The key theme Singer’s film engages with is homosexuality. Although Mercury’s sexuality is well known to viewers, the film encounters his personal discovery and acceptance whilst being engaged to life-long friend, Mary Austin. The couple’s engagement is depicted as a disguise for his eccentric behaviour and admiration for women’s fashion until he later embraces his sexuality. Mercury’s acceptance is shown in an emotional scene with Austin, when he reveals he is bisexual. Austin rejects this and tells him she knows he is gay. This scene is reportedly true, with Austin herself recounting this conversation in an interview. The film’s appeal is heightened due to its release in a time when the LGBTQ+ community has gained major support in Britain, and serves as a reminder of when homosexual people faced public opposition, therefore showing the hardships individuals, like Mercury, endured, giving the film real poignancy.

In 1967, the government passed the Sexual Offences Act which decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting men over the age of 21. Bohemian Rhapsody shows Mercury’s active homosexual lifestyle through his partying, which explored his substance abuse, and attendance in gay clubs. However, there are debates surrounding whether Mercury was open about his same-sex relationships, which is depicted in the film. Mercury enters a relationship with Jim Hutton, his partner of six years until his death in 1991, yet introduces him to others as a friend. Their relationship shows how the government’s legislation failed to make it easier for some homosexual men to admit their sexuality. Mercury’s anxieties about his sexuality are also portrayed when he gets agitated at journalists prying into his personal life. Singer’s inclusion of this scene shows the aggressive tendencies of journalists to get a scoop and the pressure homosexual individuals in the public eye faced regarding their sexuality.

The AIDS crisis during the 1980s features prominently towards the end of the film. Film critics have questioned Singer’s chronology as Mercury’s diagnosis is shown being days before their Live Aid performance. Critics have believed the showman caught the disease years after the concert. However, biographers Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne have narrowed the window of his potential contraction of AIDS to between July and August 1982, three years before the concert. Malek portrays the singer’s disbelief through news reports on the crisis which showed men being diagnosed and enduring horrific symptoms. Posters created by charities in the 1980s displayed the importance of sexual health and encouraged the public to use protection to prevent the spread of the disease. The news reports shown within the film and most of the posters were targeted towards men, with a key stigma being that it was transmitted through unprotected homosexual intercourse.

The actors convey emotional and passionate performances in the film, especially when Malek informs the band of his life-changing virus. The tear-provoking scenes surrounding his diagnosis build to a triumphant performance at the 1985 Live Aid concert. Approximately £50 million was raised within 24 hours for the Ethiopian famine, and a large sum of this was the result of Queen’s set. Whilst Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody may not investigate the themes discussed within this blog post in depth, their inclusion within the biopic highlight the milieu and context in which Queen emerged and thrived, making the film more than just a “tribute act”.

Bohemian Rhapsody was released in cinemas on 24 October 2018.