by John Ellis
I recently watched Bohemian Rhapsody over the course of two evenings. Not so much for myself, although I was mildly intrigued when the movie was first released. I watched it because my thirteen-year-old daughter who is really into music and considers herself a fan of Queen wants to watch it. Knowing a little about the movie and a lot about Freddie Mercury, I wanted to give it a parental viewing before saying “yay” or “nay.” Most likely, after having watched the movie, my answer will be “nay.” If she were a couple of years older, I would allow her to watch it in order to have a conversation with her. For all its artistic and moral flaws, Bohemian Rhapsody unwittingly supports a Biblical sexual ethic. In doing so, it turns the gay lifestyle into the movie’s “bad guy.”
Known for several hit songs, most notably “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen was a great band (still is, I guess, since they’re touring with Adam Lambert as their lead singer). Freddy Mercury was a brilliant singer and showman. He’s arguably the greatest rock vocalist that’s ever lived. The band’s performance at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid is considered by many to be the greatest live rock performance of all time. While videos don’t do concerts justice, the videos on YouTube of that show provide a sense of Mercury and his bandmates’ power and artistry. As you’ve probably already figured out, like my daughter, I’m a fan of Queen.
Freddie Mercury is also a gay icon. Having died from complications from AIDs in 1991, Mercury has become a figurehead for the gay rights movement and the fight against AIDs. Because of this, I’m surprised that GLAAD and LGBTQ activists aren’t more up in arms over Bohemian Rhapsody. I vaguely remember some minor grumblings from within the LGBTQ community during the run-up to the movie’s theatrical release. Since then, all I’ve heard is praise for Rami Malek’s performance as Queen’s larger-than-life frontman; a performance which garnered Malek an Oscar. As I already hinted at, though, Freddie Mercury’s gay lifestyle is the film’s primary antagonist.
Towards the beginning of the movie’s second act conflict there is a scene at Mercury’s house that underlines the thematic tone of the movie. As the steadicam tracks him, Freddy Mercury, dressed in a royal robe and a garish crown, moves effortlessly through the throng of beautiful, scantily-clad party goers that ooze unbridled sexuality as “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” sets the mood.
His movements are contrasted by cuts to his bandmates sitting calmly with their wives. Mercury makes his way into their midst, and gleefully plops himself down, upsetting the tranquil balance of what should be his inner group. For their part, the other members of Queen respond dismissively to the party, Freddy Mercury’s new haircut, and their frontman’s boy toy. After the band departs with their wives, Mercury’s face betrays the loneliness and hurt that has already bubbled out in previous scenes. However, he quickly subdues his hurt and climbs onto a chair, raises his champagne glass, and shouts to the revelers, “My darlings, the time has come to get absolutely s**t-faced.”
In no uncertain terms, the viewer is made aware that Mercury’s life has become a bacchanalian pursuit of pleasure. And that pursuit, the gay lifestyle, was his undoing – his enemy. On the flipside, the filmmakers make sure to highlight the path that he should’ve taken. A path of traditional sexual ethics and marriage.
One of Bohemian Rhapsody’s main themes is Freddy Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton. In fact, the pair’s relationship is the film’s heart, its center. Adhering closely to real life, in the movie Mary Austin is Mercury’s one true love. In a biography of the rock star, Mercury is quoted as confessing that he considered Mary his common-law wife. What’s more, in his will, he left his house to her and not to his partner at the time, Jim Hutton, explaining to Mary, “You would have been my wife, and it would have been yours anyway.” My point is that Freddy Mercury is portrayed at his happiest, with the most peace, and at his most artistically productive in Bohemian Rhapsody when in a heterosexual relationship and that portrayal is accurate. His constant longing for Mary is shown, yet, sadly, he pursued self-serving lust instead of selfless love to his detriment.
Freddy Mercury was undeniably a gifted man who obeyed the Creation Mandate by exercising dominion over music with his beautiful voice, gifting fellow Image Bearers with excellent music to enjoy. Yet, his life ended tragically, the result of rebellion against God. To their credit, the filmmakers don’t shy away from painting very close to that truth in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Mary Austin is the most sympathetic character in the movie, and the viewer is left with the indelible impression that Mercury’s life would’ve been altered for the better if he hadn’t steered into his self-centered impulses. His bandmates, especially Brian May, are also sympathetic characters asked to carry the burden of Mercury’s foolish and selfish choices. And make no mistake, the movie directly connects those foolish and selfish choices to his sexuality.
While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think about a passage I read a year ago in Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. Written by LGBTQ activist Linda Hirshman, the book is decidedly pro-gay. Yet, in the chapter on the AIDs crisis, I was surprised to read about how the gay community angrily resisted calls to use protection and limit themselves to one partner. For them, as the book says, “being gay means doing what I want sexually [emphasis kept].” The gay community believed (probably still believes) that they have the right to do whatever they want without having to worry about any consequences. In a stunning revelation, Hirshman wrote, “Even the leading proponents of safe-sex practices, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, conceded in 1982 that ‘ultimately, it may be more important to let people die in pursuit of their own happiness than to limit personal freedom by regulating risk’ [emphasis kept].”
That mindset describes Freddy Mercury as portrayed by the movie. Sadly, though, as Bohemian Rhapsody also makes clear, his path to true happiness was with the woman that he knew/wished that he had married. That note strikes loudly. So, loudly, in fact, that it’s what prompted me to wonder why LGBTQ activists aren’t up in arms over the film.
Bohemian Rhapsody spills the secret to the world that a gay icon was miserable and ultimately destroyed by his embrace of homosexuality. Not only disrupting his personal life to his great detriment, Freddy Mercury’s gay lifestyle was also a hindrance to Queen. A tone of “what if?” is woven through the second and third acts culminating in the historic performance at Wembley Stadium. What would Queen have accomplished had Mercury married Mary Austin? At Wembley, with Mary watching with a gentle smile, Freddy Mercury gave the crowd at Wembley a twenty-minute peek into the crystal ball of “what if.”
So, when and if I watch Bohemian Rhapsody with my daughter, I’ll use the film’s own themes and tone to talk about the destructive power of sin and rebellion. I’ll use the heart of the film, Mary Austin, to point out that human flourishing is wrapped up in God’s ethics and not the ethics of our idolatrous heart. And in that conversation, I will add a note of praise to our Creator for gifting Freddy Mercury with that powerful and incredible voice that continues to thrill listeners nearly three decades after his tragic death. I will then encourage my daughter to use the gifts God has given her for His glory and in the service of others, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
 Linda Hirshman, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution (New York: Harper, 2012), 178.
 Hirshman, Victory, 178.