On September 5, Entertainment Weekly released the first image of Rami Malek as Queen’s Freddie Mercury from a new biopic, and a certain corner of the internet went into meltdown. To be fair, with the help of bulge-hugging jeans and a jawline that could literally slice through butter, the Mr. Robot actor nailed Mercury’s mustachioed posturing. The still, embedded above, is an early glimpse of Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie from filmmaker Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) set to be released on December 25, 2018. The band themselves announced the project on their official website in July this summer, describing it as a recreation of “the fabulous Queen years.”
Bohemian Rhapsody has been in the works for twelve years, with a laundry list of directors and leading men attached. In 2010, Deadline reported that Sacha Baron Cohen was set to play Mercury in the film — and director David Fincher was briefly interested — but, according to Deadline, Cohen exited the production three years later, citing creative differences with Queen themselves; Brian May and Roger Taylor were heavily involved and had been granted script and director approval. British actor Ben Whishaw and director Dexter Fletcher then became attached to the movie, but both left in 2014, again due to an alleged clash with the band. Malek and Singer signed up in November 2016.
So why the musical chairs? In 2013, Deadline writer Nikki Finke reported, “The reason [for Cohen’s departure] is that the band wanted to make more of a PG movie about Queen while Cohen was counting on a gritty R-rated tell-all centered around the gifted gay singer.” In a 2016 interview on The Howard Stern Show, Stern asked Cohen: “You wanted to get into the nitty gritty right? You wanted to get into his sex life?” Cohen replied: “Yeah, definitely. There are amazing stories about Freddie Mercury. The guy was wild. He was living an extreme lifestyle [of] debauchery…But you gotta remember, they want to protect their legacy as a band.”
Mercury’s story is one that deserves to be told. Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar (now Tanzania), he grew up in east Africa and India before moving with his family to Middlesex, England, when he was a teenager. Reinventing himself with a Castro clone look and adopting the name Freddie Mercury, he brought his queer sexuality into his music to humorous and indelible effect — famously dressing as a glamorous woman doing house chores in Queen’s “I Want To Break Free” video, and documenting the drag queens of his extravagant 40th birthday party in Munich for 1985 solo single “Living On My Own.” Personal themes may have manifested themselves in Queen’s music in more subtle ways, too, and Mercury’s biographer Lesley Ann-Jones also makes a compelling case for “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the artist’s coming out song.
Beneath the stage persona, though, Mercury was an introverted person with a complicated relationship with his queerness, a duality that would be fascinating to see on screen. For most of the ’70s, Mercury was in a long-term relationship with a woman, but would also say things like “I’m as gay as a daffodil, my dear!” (NME, 1974). He went to London gay clubs and picked up guys, sometimes with Princess Diana in tow, and had coke-fuelled parties with Elton John. But, at heart, he was a shy individual. Later in life he was happily partnered with Jim Hutton, who stayed by his side until Mercury’s death from AIDS-related illness in 1991. Even so, the singer chose not to disclose his HIV status to the press (instead, he was cruelly outed as positive by the U.K. tabloids), and, according to Hutton’s 1994 book Mercury and Me, often distanced himself from his lover at public events. Mercury’s life was wild, beautiful, and tragic, and his story is better than fiction.
Not much else is known about the finer plot points of Bohemian Rhapsody at this point. But I’m troubled by the idea that Queen’s desire to “protect their legacy” might translate into downplaying Mercury’s conflicted queerness. In Hollywood, the view persists that LGBTQ-positive storylines will hurt a film’s chances with “mainstream” (read: straight) audiences. And when big-budget biopics do get made about non-hetero people, too often they reduce their characters’ sexuality to a footnote — as with the anodyne, Oscar-winning film about gay scientist Alan Turing, The Imitation Game. It’s crucial that LGBTQ stories are told with care, and I hope that Bohemian Rhapsody keeps this in mind when dramatizing the life of this singular artist. Glossing over Freddie Mercury’s queerness won’t preserve his legacy — in fact, it would undermine it.