By Joe Jones
“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
These first lines of the classic song “Bohemian Rhapsody” perfectly sum up my exact thoughts after hearing this work of musical genius for the first time. The only way I can think to describe it is a fantastical piece of excellence so masterfully put together that very few songs can challenge as the best song of all time. The sheer brilliance of combing opera and hard rock is incredible, especially considering the musical styles at the time. The vocal ranges alone give me thrill full chills. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to. Still to this day the song blows me away, and with each listen I am finding a new layer of the song, and something new to appreciate about it.
It was this song, and many others, that made me fall in love in with one of the history’s most unforgettable bands, the British rock royalty known as Queen. Each member of this immensely talented quartet brings something very unique and special to the band. The camaraderie and harmonious synergy of the group that existed offstage rings forth in their music and was demonstrated during their live performances. Their music was perfect for large stadium shows, such as their iconic Wembley show, and their larger than life anthemic ballads have been the inspiration for countless musical artists, such as Muse and Lady Gaga.
Queen also helped to make a superstar out of the bands truly gifted singer, Farrokh Bulsara, known by his stage name as Freddie Mercury. With his flamboyant camp stage presence charming bravado, and vocal range extending from a low bass and reaching a high tenor, you would be hard pressed to find someone who wasn’t moved or inspired by his talent. The lead singer of The Who, Roger Daltrey, once described Mercury as "the best virtuoso rock 'n' roll singer of all time. He could sing anything in any style. He could change his style from line to line and, God, that's an art. And he was brilliant at it.”
Mercury is hands down one of my favorite singers of all time, and there have been many times, either alone or with the company of friends, that I have sang along with my musical idol to songs like “Somebody to Love”, “Killer Queen”, and “We are the Champions”, “The Show Must Go On”, although I can never compare with his unmatched vocal abilities.
It is my deep love, appreciation, and respect for Mercury and the other members of Queen that initially made me excited for the upcoming biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which tells the story of the band and will conclude with their famed Live Aid benefit concert in 1985. The project has been in development hell since 2010, with various actors, directors, producers, and screenwriters being attached to the project, but all pulling out at different stages of the production. Finally, we have a trailer and an official release date of November 2nd. Watching the trailer I was impressed with how nearly identical Rami Malek looks, and sounds, like Mercury, with the rest of the cast also looking like the spitting images of Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon. I was taken back to the feeling I experienced the first time I heard Queen: awe and admiration.
I was also excited to see the embodiment of one of my queer role models on the silver screen, and the powerful effect that kind of representation would have on younger audiences, and to help bring to the light the truth about Mercury’s identity. I had such high hopes, until certain details about the film came to light, ad completely undermined my confidence in the film to accurately depict the life, and death of Freddie Mercury.
Star Trek: Discovery creator sparked the controversy of the film when he addressed the “hetwashing” of the film in a tweet directed at 20th Century Fox and calling on them to “Do Better”:
"Judging from this trailer alone, it felt to me like queer erasure, regarding Freddie Mercury's bisexuality or his relationships with men [that] felt conspicuously absent, or rather significantly de-emphasized. The use of 'life-threatening illness' in the publicity material smacked so disturbingly of Reagan-era AIDS denial, my ass was triggered like Roy Rogers,… Representation matters.”
Fuller is criticizing the film for seemingly being more concerned with emphasizing Mercury’s relationship with women, and downplaying his attraction to women. Mercury had relationships with women, and although he dedicated the song “Love of my life” in honor of Mary Austin, he did spend much of his later life in relationships with men, such as Jim Hutton. But what’s more concerning than painting Mercury as more of a lover of the Fat Bottomed Girls than Good Old Fashioned Lover Boys like himself, is neglecting to mention his succumbing to AIDS.
Choosing not to make Mercury’s lifestyle and death is the main reason that the original actor cast in the lead role, Sacha Baron Cohen, to pull out of production prematurely: "A member of the band—I won't say who—said, 'You know, this is such a great movie because it's got such an amazing thing that happens in the middle of the movie.' And I go, 'What happens in the middle of the movie?' He goes, 'You know, Freddie dies.'...I go, 'What happens in the second half of the movie?' He goes, 'We see how the band carries on from strength to strength.' I said, 'Listen, not one person is going to a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you carry on to see how the band carries on.'"
Cohen seemed to think that the band was more interested in making a film about Queen and “to protect their legacy as a band”, which is completely understandable. However, part of the legacy of the band will always be the way Mercury lived his life, and the tragic way he died.
According to Hutton, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in late April of 1987. By the end of that same year, 71,176 people were diagnosed with AIDS in the US alone with 41,027 already dead. Progress to fight the epidemic had been slow up until that point, with one of the earliest antiretroviral drugs, AZT and new blood testing kit more specific for detecting the presence of HIV in the blood, both being approved by the FDA, and President Reagan making his first public speech about AIDS, and establishing a Presidential commission on HIV.
While Mercury was not open about his status publicly until a mere two days before his death in 1991, he did play an important role in the history of the AIDS crisis. He was the first major rock star to die from the illness, and after his death, the remaining band members arranged a benefit concert to celebrate their fallen band mate. With the help of other amazing musicians from bands such as The Who, Def Leppard, Guns and Roses, Metallica, as well as Elton John, David Bowie, George Michael, and Liza Minnelli the band raised enough money to launch The Mercury Phoenix Trust. In the 21 years since it was established, the trust has raised 15 million dollars, and helped to fund over 700 projects to help bring an end to HIV/AIDS on a global scale.
The resilience Mercury showcased despite battling a terrible illness is a testament to his power of will, and his dedication to his music, and his fans. Queen’s fourteenth, and final album “Innuendo” was March 1989 and November 1990, while an increasingly AIDS stricken and emaciated Mercury was attempting to keep his illness a secret from the press and public, and had only been disclosed with those in his inner circle, including his band mates.
The final track on the album, and my personal favorite, the chilling anthem “The Show Must Go On”, addresses Mercury’s efforts to attempt to continue performing, while nearing the end of his life. Brian May recalls that Mercury could hardly walk and he and the other band mates doubted if he was going to be able to record the track, due to his weakened state: “Fred, I don't know if this is going to be possible to sing,' " May says. "And he went, 'I'll fucking do it, darling' — vodka down — and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal." That’s rock and roll, children.
It’s stories like this about Freddie Mercury that deserve to be told. People living with AIDS didn’t die cowards, they died fighting for recognition, respect, awareness, education, and a cure, and in Mercury’s case, he died a legend. Freddie Mercury isn’t great because he died of AIDS, he’s great because of how he lived despite his affliction with AIDS. Diminishing the lethal effect AIDS had on his life in film, doesn’t erase the global effect AIDS had in between 1987 and 1991, nor does it erase the effect AIDS still has today. Nearly 40 million people have died AIDS related complications, that’s approximately the same number of people that are living with HIV right now.
By chalking up Mercury’s death to anything less than AIDS the crime of historical inaccuracy is committed. A strong message is being sent that those who died of AIDS under the watch of an administration that looked the other way, did so in vain, and that the efforts of those who worked tirelessly to change public opinion were all for naught. It also tells those living with HIV/AIDS right now that their status also doesn’t matter, and that if they die, they will also be swept under the rug by those who wish to construct a narrative that is more “comfortable”. AIDS is not a comfortable subject, but one that must be addressed and talked about if we want to finally bring an end to the epidemic. I sincerely hope the producers of the film respect the source material from which the movie is based on, and present Mercury in the light he deserves: as a fiercely talented, proud, and unapologetic performer who lived his life to the fullest, up until the very end.