I grew up in a religiously, culturally and gastronomically Jewish home in Willingboro, NJ which is a suburb of Philadelphia. Our family went to synagogue weekly, practiced holiday rituals, lit the candles on Friday night, but kept kosher only when my paternal grandmother lived with us. I attended Hebrew school until I was 16. […]
As a child of the 60s and ’70s, the rock band that hailed from England and became a worldwide phenomenon is now the topic of a newly released biopic, focusing on its central character, the chameleon-esque Freddie Mercury. Since I saw the trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody, I felt my heart leaping, much like Freddie did on stage and knew I had to be in the movie theater audience, perhaps to make up for never have been in any of the concert venues in which Queen played.
I didn’t know his back-story and the movie sheds a light on the reasons he so craved the spotlight and at times, protected his privacy. Born in Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara into an Indian Parsi family, he changed his name to reinvent himself, since perhaps he felt pigeon-holed by racial slurs and saw himself as a skyrocketing shooting star. His family’s spiritual tradition was Zoroastrianism and the guidance toward “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds,” was echoed throughout the movie, coming to a crescendo with Queen’s rocking the stage at Wembley Stadium for the epic Live Aid concert in 1985.
The film begins with Freddie loading baggage at Heathrow Airport and disgusted by being called a “Paki”; referring to those perceived as being Pakistani. He goes out at night to hear a band play and is mesmerized by what he sees and hears, perhaps imagining himself on stage. When their lead singer quits, he offers to take his place among his bandmates Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor. Hearing him vocalize, they are blown away and a legend is born. A physical anomaly about which he is uncomfortable (Freddie had a prominent overbite) became a vivid plot point in the film and he explained that he thought it helped him sing better.
The evolution of Queen as a musical band as well as a band of brothers who co-create, fight, dissolve and re-unite, seeing their iconic lead singer through addiction, lifestyle excesses made accessible by wealth and fame, ego-flares and loneliness, despite being surrounded by love, is heartwarming to behold. The actors blended their own voices and instrumentation with the original sound of the band.
An underlying thread was the love that Freddie shared with Mary Austin who he met when she was 19 and he was 24. Sparks flew, the relationship deepened and he proposed marriage and then discovered that he was Gay. Their bond remained, despite her marrying and having children and Freddie had many lovers per the film and then settled down with a man he met who challenged him to befriend himself before he could truly let someone in. Both, according to various biographical accounts, were with him at the end of his life in 1991, with AIDS claiming him.
A wink and nod that I hadn’t realized until researching for this article, was that Mike Myers (Wayne’s World) was tapped to play Ray Foster who bankrolled Queen’s first album and declined to go further when he objected to the six-minute long Bohemian Rhapsody being presented to radio stations for airplay. He claims that the song will never have teenagers headbang and sing along to the song in their cars. In a 2010 NPR interview with Brian May, he explains to Terry Gross that it was that scene in the 1992 movie introduce young fans to their music.
Although there are factual inaccuracies in the film (such as the scenes in which Freddie plans to go solo, which upsets the apple cart, when other bandmates had already done it and the revelation of his AIDS diagnosis prior to Live Aid when he came out about it a few years later), it is still a stunning portrayal of a man whose music and very presence on the planet will leave a grand imprint. Rami Malek who played the star was well chosen as his mannerisms and ability to strut his stuff did Freddie proud.
Why was Queen such a bloody good success? In a powerful line, Freddie explains, “Tell you what it is, Mr. Reid. Now we’re four misfits who don’t belong together, we’re playing for the other misfits. They’re the outcasts, right at the back of the room. We’re pretty sure they don’t belong either. We belong to them.” The thundering foot stomping and clapping along to We Will Rock You, as audience participatory art is evidence of that.