At a 1978 launch party for Queen’s album Jazz, Freddie Mercury furnished a New Orleans hotel with nude waiters, snake charmers, and—according to rumor—trays of cocaine. For Mercury’s birthday in 1987, the singer drew 700 friends to Ibiza for a soiree that’s still commemorated annually on the island. At another birthday, in 1985 at a bar in Munich, he asked his guests to dress in black-and-white drag while he caroused in harlequin pants, generalissimo tassels, and no shirt. You can watch the footage, and you can wish you were there.
Yet there’s exactly one party scene in Bohemian Rhapsody, the plastic new biopic directed (mostly) by Bryan Singer. Rami Malek’s Mercury, lonely and bored, decides to invite everyone he can into his home. He’s dressed in the same epaulets as the real Mercury was at the aforementioned 1985 party, and his guests revel in all manner of costume. The only three outliers amid the fun are the other members of Queen, curly-maned and straitlaced, looking nauseated. Mercury tries to get guitarist Brian May to dance. May refuses, calls Mercury a jerk, and storms out.
Bizarrely, the movie seems to be on May’s side. The Mercury on-screen is a bit of a jerk, not to mention frail, desperate, and easily swayed. Though it worships the singer’s panache and talent by vibrantly re-creating Mercury’s iconic performances, Bohemian Rhapsody also holds up his extravagance as something lurid and hollow. All film adaptations of reality must bend the truth, but Anthony McCarten’s script gives off the distinct impression of having been fussed with by May and Queen’s drummer, Roger Taylor, so as to polish their reputations—at the expense of Mercury’s and, on some level, in judgment of the carpe diem attitude for which he stood.
The early concern that the film would hide Mercury’s sexuality turned out to be unfounded, but Bohemian Rhapsody does have a strange relationship with Mercury’s romantic life. Early on, viewers watch him struggle in shame and confusion as he weighs his love for his fiancée, Mary Austin, with his desire to follow a dude who just made eyes at him into the bathroom. Later in the movie, Mercury’s liberation curdles as he experiences the consequences of partying and sex while the other band members look on and shake their heads. The personal rewards in between—the sense that he might have found genuine satisfaction in being an all-but-out queer icon—are mostly left in the background.
Partly, this dynamic results from the movie’s need for a villain. Early on, the band’s assistant, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), comes on to Mercury suddenly and is rebuffed, telegraphing the notion that something is off about Prenter beyond—but linked to—being gay. Prenter, however, does eventually break down Mercury’s barriers, and the two have some sort of relationship that’s largely kept offscreen—and mostly treated like a bad thing. Prenter becomes the band’s manager and manipulates Mercury into estrangement with his comrades, setting up the big conflict of the film: Mercury’s pursuit of a solo career, which has the effect of cutting him off from his bandmates and leading him down a spiral of hedonism and hangers-on. When the singer finally wises up and fires the “fruit fly” who’s been buzzing around him, Prenter trashes Mercury in the media.
In real life, Prenter did sell out Mercury’s secrets. But the truth also appears to be that Mercury went solo later than depicted, without causing a hiatus for the band, and only after Taylor had already released two solo albums. Thus Mercury’s supposed betrayal of Queen—which is shown as nearly preventing the band from playing their legendary Live Aid gig—appears to be made up. One suspects that it’s in the movie so the band wouldn’t have to reckon with the real drama that preceded Live Aid: Queen had ignored boycotts of oppressive governments in Argentina and South Africa by playing concerts in those countries. Getting into those dicey political decisions—which cemented the impression that Queen placed money over conscience—would have made for a more interesting story line.
So would have a concerted attempt at untangling Mercury’s love life, partying, and health on their own terms, rather than portraying them as distractions and obstacles for the larger band. In one lurid, dreamlike montage set to “Another One Bites the Dust,” Prenter leads Mercury through red-lit corridors of scantily clad men. But if the film is willing to leer at the clubs Mercury frequented, it’s not willing to allow for the long-term companionship he found in one of them. In real life, Mercury met his partner, Jim Hutton, at a gay bar; Hutton, already taken by another man, turned down Mercury’s initial advances. In the film, though, Hutton works as a waiter at Mercury’s party, and the singer essentially sexually harasses his employee. Hutton rejects him, and says he’ll be interested in getting with him only when Mercury learns to love himself.
The notion that Mercury’s outrageous persona was rooted in loneliness and loathing permeates the movie, and because the singer himself never wrote a memoir, it’s hard to litigate whether this bit of psychoanalyzing is fair. Finding signs of inner torture in Mercury’s lyrics is certainly not difficult. But neither is finding full-throated cases for thrill-seeking and self-acceptance. There’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” of course: “I’m a shooting star, leaping through the sky / Like a tiger defying the laws of gravity.” There’s also “Was It All Worth It,” in which Mercury asks whether it was worth “living breathing rock ‘n’ roll / this never ending fight” and ends up answering yes. With a $50 million box-office haul for the movie in its first weekend, the band is still profiting from Mercury’s gusto. Why are they also treating it like a flaw?