In a nod to LGBT History Month 2019 Hannah J. Elizabeth thought they’d cast an HIV/queer historian’s eye over the film Bohemian Rhapsody. (Originally this blogpost was written for World AIDS Day 2018).
Firstly, Rami Malek is an excellent Freddie and the music is GREAT. However, and this is a big however…
The biopic is supposed to follow Freddie Mercury’s life from the moment he joins Queen to the band’s rhapsodic performance at Live AID. There have been several reviews since the film came out decrying the absence of sex, drugs and queer sensuality in a film that attempts to follow a rock band and rock star.
See the Guardian review which argues the film ‘reduces Mercury’s homosexuality to a tutting “he’s got in with the wrong crowd”, or the New York Times review which dubs it ‘a Lego palace of clichés’, or the New Yorker which names it ‘the least orgiastic rock bio-pic’.
The film isn’t really about sex or drugs or HIV for that matter, but rather it’s about music, and Freddie’s desire to be seen as a musician above all other labels. Consequently, the film is more of a vessel for stringing Queen songs together than anything else. It’s not about HIV, sex or drugs, in fact it somehow barely seemed to be about Freddie. As a Queen fan, I quite liked listening to the songs on cinema speakers. As a historian of HIV and sexuality, I was disappointed.
The film’s refusal to deal with the myriad reasons people have sex or take drugs – beyond the escapism or loneliness which are presented as Freddie’s – results in an elliptical film which erases motive and character development in favour of melodrama. We see Freddie cruise at a truck stop while on the phone to his fiancé, we see him hungover, we see him self-destruct; but we don’t see much in the way of love or pleasure in his encounters with men or substances. This positions Freddie’s sexuality and emotions as obstacles to the success of the band, his AIDS diagnosis presented as an inevitable crescendo at the end of bender brought on by an inherently tragic nature. Essentially what we get in Bohemian Rhapsody is a casting of a queer man as very much other and therefore vulnerable – to manipulation, drugs, alcohol and HIV. This is an age old trope, (albeit played here with some degree of sympathy), but it isn’t what we need.
Having seen the film, speaking as a historian of HIV and queer history (and a fan of Queen & Freddie) I can recommend rather than seeing it, you spend some time watching/reading/listening to something else.
Firstly, some academic suggestions in response Bohemian Rhapsody:
Matt Cook – ‘Archives of Feeling’: the AIDS Crisis in Britain 1987 – you can also watch Matt lecture on the same subject.
Lucy Robinson – Putting the Charity Back into Charity Singles: Charity Singles in Britain 1984–1995
Rich McKay – Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic
And now some pop-culture
I’ve picked three items for each category that I hope complicate some of the stories we associate with AIDS, sex, drugs and queer history. They aren’t perfect, but they tell some interesting stories.
What to watch instead:
The People Vs. the NHS: Who gets the Drugs?
What to read instead:
The Line of Beauty – sex and drugs and HIV feature – it also captures the political/cultural context of Britain in the 1980s/1990s in a way that Bohemian Rhapsody entirely fails to.
Two Weeks with the Queen – a young adult novel which is funny and sad and full of the love missing in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Positively Women: Living with HIV – This is a collection of testimonies from 1992 by women living with AIDS.
What to listen to instead:
Queen’s – The Show Must Go On
Spice Girl’s – 2 become 1
Positive in Prison: HIV stories from a Dublin Jail (docu drama not music)