Rami Malek stars as Freddie Mercury in the new Queen biopic20th Century Fox

The hotly-anticipated Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody hit cinemas last Wednesday, to relatively mixed reviews. Despite this lack of consensus, I thought it made for an exhilarating watch – flamboyant and exciting in some parts, poignant in others. The film storms through almost two decades of studio recording sessions, romances, concerts and debauched parties, the band experiencing a meteoric rise to fame, as well as a fall in the wake of lead vocalist Freddie Mercury’s solo deal signing. In an emotionally charged scene, Mercury returns from Munich and reunites with the band, who go on to perform the Live Aid set which would mesmerise a generation.

While Freddie Mercury himself should not bear the burden of representing the AIDS infected community, his untimely death at 45 has left an indelible mark on his legacy

It is worth pondering over why the producers decided this would be the point at which the film culminates. Of course, there is no doubt that Mercury solidified himself as a world-class frontman at this concert. Rami Malek – prosthetic molars and all – does a superb job in embodying the singer’s dynamic vocal genius as he struts across the stage in the final sequence. He reminds the audience that there are not enough superlatives to describe the transcendental magic of on-stage Freddie Mercury.

Unbeknownst to all but the band and his closest friends, Mercury was also in the early stages of his battle with HIV. It would be another 6 years until he succumbed to the disease, dying of AIDS-related bronchopneumonia in November 1991. For this reason, some of the critical heat received by the film has questioned whether Mercury’s life story was adequately depicted . Reference to both his diagnosis, and his relationship with Jim Hutton – the man he would stay with for the rest of his life – is sparse; his ensuing battle with the illness in the six years after Live Aid is left out of the film altogether. 

Rami Malek has been praised for his depiction of the Queen frontman20th Century Fox

David France’s brilliant documentary How To Survive A Plague, released in 2012, gives much-needed credit to the activist organisations Act Up and TAG, and the tireless work they did in galvanising public support and bringing attention to the AIDS crisis. It would take years of laying down in the streets and disrupting rallies, church services and medical conferences before the FDA (the US Food and Drug Administration) would cede to the key demand that the usual 7-10 year period for drug trialling would be considerably shortened to speed up the introduction of potentially life-saving treatments. It would not be until 1996 that protease inhibitors were released onto the market, the most effective drug course to reduce the HIV viral load in patients that we have to date. Before this breakthrough, six million people would die of AIDS-related illness.

Acting like Freddie’s death was merely incidental only serves to uphold a dangerous narrative perpetuated by apologists for the Thatcher government and Reagan/Bush administration.

While Bohemian Rhapsody does not purport to be a factual documentary, depicting social issues through the medium of drama is often an effective way to raise public awareness. Film has often proved itself to be a brilliant, accessible way of teaching younger generations about sensitive topics like the AIDS crisis – and with a star-studded cast and $70 million budget to boot, there is no doubt that Bohemian Rhapsody will be watched by a wide audience. 

Although a dramatic retelling of the Queen story would not be so captivating without the costumes, lavish parties and debauchery that do appear, films depicting real life equally shoulder a responsibility to do this in an accurate, contextually sensitive manner. There continues to be a plethora of stigmatising misconceptions regarding HIV/AIDS, and despite huge advances in the treatment of the condition, there is still work to be done. In July, Larry Kramer, activist and figurehead of the Act Up movement, penned a New York Times op-ed lambasting those who posit that the worst is over for the LGBT+ community. Antiretroviral drugs, Kramer reminds us, are still prohibitively expensive and have many unpleasant side effects. 


READ MORE

Mountain View

A love letter to Cameron Post

As such, the film may have done well to address Freddie’s later life. When Malek’s Mercury breaks the news to the band in the film, he proclaims ‘I don’t want to be an AIDS poster body — their cautionary tale!’ This statement not only emphasises the importance of remembering Freddie as an artistic genius, but also on shifting focus away from popular individuals so as to not diminish the widespread, very personal suffering of all those that died of the illness or knew those who did. Yet while Freddie Mercury himself should not bear the burden of representing the AIDS infected community, his untimely death at 45 has left an indelible mark on his legacy, recognised fittingly not just by the hugely successful tribute concert, but also by the Mercury Phoenix trust that was set up in his memory in 1992, and which funds over 700 global HIV initiatives to this day.

Acting like Freddie’s death was merely incidental only serves to uphold a dangerous narrative perpetuated by apologists for the Thatcher government and Reagan/Bush administration. That the AIDS crisis was no more of an ‘oopsie daisy’ on the part of those holding power at critical moments of the epidemic – a narrative which is categorically untrue. The marginalisation of the interests of the gay community underpinned a bureaucratic inertia that would postpone numerous attempts to invest in trials for premeds in the UK. Thatcher also tried to prevent the distribution of public health leaflets about safe sex, which she deemed ‘in bad taste’ (they did end up being circulated, but with considerable text amendments). These bigoted attitudes can still be found today, particularly in the developing world, where AIDS continues to affect millions.

Bohemian Rhapsody TrailerYoutube - 20th Century Fox

Freddie Mercury was killed by systematic and institutionalised homophobia, as were the 22 million people that have died since the epidemic began. Until we grapple with this fact, Mercury’s life story cannot be accurately told. While nobody should be remembered purely for the illness they died of,  a film that bypasses the injustices done to Mercury as well as so many others in the HIV and LGBT+ communities does a disservice to his legacy, and is no longer popular history, but fiction.

Sponsored links