An open letter in response to Peter Knegt’s ‘concerned’ …but far from queer… review of Bohemian Rhapsody (which, incidentally, is not ‘a biopic of Freddie Mercury’ as Knegt claims, but of the creative transformations undergone and effected by the rock group Queen.
I think Knegt’s seething review is a complete misrepresentation of what the film does. Here’s why :
Certainly, the film takes a lot of poetic license, all biopics do. But it’s handling of those narratives is much more nuanced than this critic gives them credit for. And I say this as someone who is extremely sensitive to and critical of moralistic narratives around promiscuity, hiv and drug use.
This is not a film about gays (or bisexuals) and heterosexuals. (Surely we remember that the category of gay identity was emergent at that point in history, not fixed).
It is a film about friendship, collaboration, creative experimentation and cultural transformation.
I thought Bohemian Rhapsody was profoundly insightful about collective creativity, care, play, and the importance of acknowledging the generosity of friendship and the originality of people’s creative contributions to a shared project *irrespective* of sexual identity.
Leaving aside the question of how true to life the moral trajectory the film narrates is (the films makers’ have not denied taking considered poetic license), after reading Knegt’s ungenerous review I am left asking: why do we react so violently against the implication made within this narrative that the camraderie and companionship and fun sexual social life that Freddie experiences in the emergent Euro/ uS urban gay subculture of the late 70s failed him in some ways, as his health was declining and his immune system being ravaged by this devastating, and at the time untreatable, virus ?
I read the treatment of drug use in the film less as moralising – (suggestions are made that drug use is part of Freddy’s creative process pre – the band splitting up, for example) then anxious – the sort of anxiety we see in others narratives of gay life in the 70s such as Dancer from the Dance…. so I thought it did a pretty well informed job of conveying the affective climate of that moment in gay history – the late 70s to early 80s). I admired the film’s bravery in going to that narratively overdetermined place but producing something much subtler about the nexus between risk and care and self-experimentation and cultural transformation. .
It seems to me that we (the Gays of today) – among whom I would count Knegt – are still trapped in this binary of either moralising against promiscuity and drugs (a la northern hemisphere chemsex discourse) …or sentimentalising those party scenes as foolproof generators of care and love and material support.
And yet it seems to me that the present context of PREP- enabled chemsex requires us more than ever to get better at recognising when subcultural care practices within party scenes work, and when they are failing, and how. So we can improve them. Because guess what? some people slip through the cracks – even while others (including myself) experience these scenes are generative of great pleasure and intense joy and love and camaraderie and self-transformation
Also : Freddy does not present Hutton to his family as his partner/lover/boyfriend . He presents him, with marked and delightful irony, as his “friend”. The ambiguity of this term in that context is deliberate. At that stage of the narrative Hutton really *is* his friend and not his lover. .The scene is sweet because his mother and family take his euphemistic ‘friend’ to be his lover -as was common back in the day- and acknowledge their relationship, when we the viewers know that Hutton is actually acting in this instance /early stage of their evolving relationship in the capacity of Freddies *friend* (by *playing* his lover), to help him through a time of immense personal vulnerability and necessary self-confrontation that involves taking the risk of actively confronting his family with his excessively deviant sexual identification. Necessary, that is, for him, to grasp the moment ethically and self- affirmatively and joyously in the context of his imminent death.
This critic lambasts the film for lack of subtlety but it’s his reading of that I find cliched and stereotyped and full of reactionary moralism. His ‘concern’ has less to do with anything queer than his righteous desire to enforce what he regards as a ‘correct’ representation of gay identity.
Bohemian Rhapsody is not a film about some precious queen -it’s an exploration of the pleasures and possibilities of playful (often agonistic) friendship