Face the Truth | Selective Storytelling in Bohemian Rhapsody
This is deeply uncool, but then again I freely admit to being deeply uncool when it comes to music, so here goes. I first became obsessed with Queen because in the textbook we used for English in Transition Year – a slim volume that tried to be edgy and hip – the lyrics to ‘We Are the Champions’ were printed as a poem. It’s a well-known tactic, trying to demystify poetry for young people by pointing out that those songs they listen to are poetry too (Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I Am A Rock’ is a great one for that altogether – metaphors aplenty!).
Sceptical of this stance, which felt reductive and seemed to ignore that song lyrics are a part but not the whole, not meant to stand alone, it was nevertheless a revelation that ‘We Are The Champions’ wasn’t originally to do with sports. This, linked with a note on the band’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, who’d died more than ten years before of AIDS (a fact I sort-of knew in that way you know lots of things vaguely as a teenager but can’t quite take in until there’s that extra nudge that makes it feel actually relevant to your self-absorbed brain), sent me into an obsession spiral. I went home and rummaged through my parents’ vinyl collection which had been collecting dust.
There it was, the first volume of Queen’s greatest hits. Still in school uniform, I carefully slid it out of the paper sleeve and set it on the turntable, terrified I would break something.
Somebody to Love
When I see the trailer something swells in my heart. The opening chords of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ play, and the figure of Freddie Mercury, played by Rami Malek, appears on the screen. Within seconds I forget there are actors involved. The snippets of the rest of the band – Brian May (Gwilyn Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) take me back (“bring it back, bring it back – don’t take it away from me”) to teenage evenings and weekends lost to documentaries and music videos, VHS tapes originally bought online and now crammed into a cardboard box somewhere.
I think: oh Freddie, Freddie, how have I forgotten about you?
Which is not quite fair to the other lads, now, is it? But those dead boys . . . oh.
Days before going to see the movie, I finished reading Meg Wolitzer’s first novel, Sleepwalking, which features three girls in their early years of college. They are the ‘death girls’, each one obsessed with a particular brilliant-but-suicidal female poet. One chooses Sylvia Plath; another, Anne Sexton. The third, the central character, as it turns out, is devoted to a fictional poet named Lucy Ascher.
There is only the gentlest satire and a great deal of sympathy in this account of how young women latch onto these quasi-mythical figures, the died-too-youngs, the misunderstoods. Wolitzer understands the way in which public figures, particularly artists, serve as a way of starting to – tentatively – comprehend our own mortality.
As a teenager who knew that death was a thing, but also desperately wanted it to have some sort of logic, and also a scribbler of angsty poems, I thought about Sylvia Plath a lot.
But when I wasn’t, I was thinking of Freddie Mercury.
Bohemian Rhapsody opens backstage at Live Aid, 1985, and then takes us back to 1970. The text captions indicating the time and place are subdued here; they will become bigger and brighter and fiercer as Queen explodes into its rightful fabulousness. For now, Farrokh Bulsara, a baggage handler and party animal whose father despairs of him, is slipping out to London clubs to appreciate the local music scene. Admiring the band Smile, he decides to approach them the same night their lead singer has quit; a tentative suggestion that they’ll need a new frontman leads to comments like, “Not with those teeth, mate!” until they hear him sing.
The band members in question are Brian May and Roger Taylor, soon to be joined by bassist John Deacon under the new moniker of Queen. Farrokh, already going by ‘Freddie’, soon changes his surname to ‘Mercury’, even though his father still disapproves of what he views as a frivolous lifestyle that has nothing to do with offering up ‘good deeds’ to the world.
Meanwhile, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) has caught Freddie’s attention, and although the film presents their early relationship with a fair bit of chemistry involved, it’s difficult to disentangle that not just from what we know about Mercury’s other partners but also the way in which camp and glam identities are now read almost exclusively as gay, apropos of the cultural context. When Freddie says he’s bisexual and Mary responds with, “you’re gay”, it feels entirely accurate – yet, of course, also touches on the problematic tendency within the gay community to insist that any bisexual-identifying man is really just kidding himself and is clearly gay.
(And yet, in a world where ‘gay man’ = ‘deadly disease’ is it any wonder there might be contention over this label?)
At the same time, though, Mary is the subject of ‘Love of My Life’ – a ballad that earns Queen much success, and foreshadows the band’s capacity to invite huge-scale audience participation in their performances – and remains so for the entirety of Freddie’s life. Played down towards the end – the ‘here’s where everyone ended up’ credit sequence acknowledges the friendship, but omits this – the relationship between Mary and Freddie prompted him to leave the bulk of his fortune to her, treating her as a wife rather than as a friend. While he did quite clearly love his long-term partner Jim Hutton, there is something endearingly traditional – and perhaps apologetic – in his focus on Mary, his parents, and his sister in his will.
There is outrage on the internet, particularly on Tumblr – when is there not? – concerning whether Freddie Mercury is presented as a bisexual icon or a gay icon. Was he a bisexual man appropriated by the gay community due to his HIV status, or a gay man who had gone through the societally-approved heterosexual coupling that so many feel obliged to engage in?
Much as the righteous might condemn him today for not stepping up to the plate as an AIDS spokesperson, or a gay rights activist, or whatever, this “musical prostitute” quite evidently had one word he wanted attached to ‘icon’ and that was ‘music’. Or perhaps ‘performer’ but very much what he was on stage and not what he was between the bedsheets. Born later, that might have been different. However, then he wouldn’t have lived in a world that had responded to him; changed because of him.
We Will Rock You
Ben Elton was involved in writing the Queen musical, We Will Rock You. I mention this not to fawn over it (I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him) but to suggest there is a fiercely Elton-ish vibe about the casting gag that sees Mike Myers (Wayne’s World) play a fictional record executive that insists there is no way ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ will do well, no way that teenagers will be head-banging to it in their cars.
It’s playful and silly and fiercely self-indulgent and I think Freddie would have liked it.
This is a sense I have from the songs and from the documentaries and from the biographies, including the thoughtful memoir from Peter Freestone, Mercury’s personal assistant for the last decade or so of his life. Maybe it is nonsense. Maybe it is just what we do when there are these artists we love who have died too soon.
I like to think he would have laughed – semi-self-consciously, always aware of the extra teeth that gave him his remarkable vocal range – and not in an unkind way, just amused. Just delighted.
But sure look. What do I know?
No One But You
The danger of the artist-who-died-too-young myth, whether by suicide or accident or illness, is that it can trick us into the idea that any of this makes any sense. ‘Only the Good Die Young’, as the subtitle to Queen’s ‘No-One But You’ (1997) single goes. Released after Princess Diana’s death, it was nevertheless primarily about Mercury and all the others who ‘die too young. It’s in many ways the last ‘proper’ Queen song; after this, John Deacon retired, and any subsequent projects involving Brian May and Roger Taylor have been under a ‘Queen + [guest artist]’ banner.
How do you tell a story about someone who died too young – and 45 is still too young, even if you’re used to obsessing over ‘the 27 club’ – and try to have it form a meaningful narrative?
The latter part of Bohemian Rhapsody tries to make terminal illness make sense. In fact, almost every historical liberty it takes – and there are many! – is concerned with building up to a high point, a celebration, for a man who is doomed to die.
Playing around with chronological order is nothing new for biopics, and the question the devoted fan should ask is ‘what effect does this serve?’ rather than stomping their feet and demanding strict accuracy. So instead of crossing arms and insisting that the origin of ‘We Will Rock You’ comes later than it really did (one of several opportunities, by the way, to remind the audience that Queen’s hits came from all four band members, not just their lead singer), let’s think about the impact of having it occur later in this film – and the way in which it emphasises how big Queen are getting.
If your movie ends with a victorious Live Aid performance and not the depressing death of a singer, you are already telling a selective story. So how do you tell that well?
The Sound Of Music is one of my all-time favourites, on the telly every Christmas. Is there any greater love than that between a naval captain (in a landlocked country) and his formerly-convent-bound nanny?
The origin story, while milder – involving an earlier, less-risky departure from Austria and a not-quite-swoon-worthy pairing between Maria and the Captain – is nevertheless still jaw-dropping and inspiring.
But even the most dramatic of real-life stories – yes, even those involving singing nuns in love – needs some kind of transformation on the page or on the screen. There is a two-hour timeframe in which to convey the emotional truth of this tale. So. Select the details that make this possible.
A Kind of Magic
Freddie pissed people off. In Bohemian Rhapsody, this is amped up into what’s portrayed as a great split instead of a break from touring when the others, too, were working on solo projects, but it serves as a way of addressing the big issue: what does a band do when the frontman gets all the attention?
Particularly: what does a band like Queen do? Roger, Brian and John were not quite as prudish as they appear in the movie, despite having families at home. They were still part of that special brand of Queen (“it’s a kind of…”) magic, all four of them. The agreement to credit all songs to the band, rather than individually, happened later than is portrayed onscreen, but is telling in that it acknowledges the extent to which these were not three guys playing support to a talented frontman.
Which of course Freddie was. But he was also – as he acknowledged himself in interviews – one of four, a team, a family, a group that depended on its particular dynamics to make magic happen.
The squabbles in the movie are exaggerated and heightened and condensed. They all quarrelled. Of course they did. And it would be easy to see Freddie as the source – as the most outwardly outrageous of the lot – despite the other strong personalities involved. (One does suspect that the portrayal of John Deacon, often viewed as super-quiet, as firm peacemaker mainly concerned in getting everyone back to work is absolutely on-point.)
“There’s only room for one hysterical queen in this band,” Freddie tells Roger in the movie. But it’s a role easier allocated in hindsight, surely, when a queen is dead.
If you want to get annoyed about the inaccuracies in the depiction of the 1980s you have to get annoyed about the whole parameters of the film. And the inaccuracies are plentiful, particularly in terms of later events being pushed forward: villainous manager Paul Prenter is fired earlier than really happened, and for different reasons; Mercury’s HIV diagnosis is nudged forward a couple of years to make the Live Aid performance (‘good deeds’ that his father approves of) all the more poignant.
But are they inherently dishonest? To end a biography before the death of its subject necessitates including details that shed light on their whole life, rather than just awkwardly chopping off the end. It means carefully crafting a story that reflects the best-known or best-agreed-upon truth about the figure in question – something that tries to be more than a straightforward timeline of known incidents while also honouring those facts.
Despite how close to the documentaries many of these scenes are, wouldn’t we be bored with a mere re-enactment of them? Even that legendary Live Aid set is truncated for the movie – although rumour has it a full version is available and is likely to be featured on the DVD – and moves between the on-stage performance and the audience response much more than any of the original ’80s footage does.
We want our stories told in the best way possible. Sometimes that means omitting details (and who among us is not grateful that recording the soundtrack for Flash Gordon has been left out of the movie?); sometimes it means amending them, tweaking them, heightening them, to help tell the story in the most effective way.
Not a one of us who has ever come from a stressful day determined to explain to others just how bad it’s been has avoided taking part in this careful story-shaping.
And, all right, maybe that ending isn’t poignant for some but ‘sentimental’ said disapprovingly. ‘Sentimental’ hasn’t always been a pejorative term. It stands in opposition to the purely rational. To put feelings before reason. To be strongly influenced by emotions. To feel.
To respond, basically, in the way we do to music.
After listening to the vinyl, I bought all the CDs. I mean, all of them. Not all at once, though if I could’ve afforded it I would have. I did that thing you do where you find certain songs on albums that feel neglected because the other tracks are such hits, and adopt them like lost puppies; I unfolded the lyrics to read as the music played; I made decisions about my favourites while also fretting over whether these were the critically acceptable and acclaimed songs.
And I thought about Freddie. Not in a romantic or sexual way, the way my peers did with Kurt Cobain or Jeff Buckley. I never wanted to kiss him, or do anything else with him. I never wanted to save him (not even when listening to ‘Save Me’), because I knew that wasn’t quite possible, even as my heart broke and burst thinking about HIV treatment and its advances. I suppose what I wanted to do, really, was to hug him, maybe squeeze his hand.
“I think you’re extraordinary,” I’d say, but I’d leave it at that, and let him go back to his life, maybe with Jim or with Mary or with the lads or with the piano, just let him go back to it, and I’d go on my way, having said what I needed to say.