Fact Check: What Bohemian Rhapsody Got Right and Wrong About Queer Icon Freddie Mercury’s Life

By Kate BoveLast Updated Jun 29, 2020 1:43:18 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/IMDb

Despite winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) and setting star Rami Malek up for a Best Actor Oscar win, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t the most faithful biopic. Meant to shed light on Queen’s iconic frontman Freddie Mercury (Malek), the film seems less interested in providing context and texture to Mercury’s life and much more interested in being an Oscar-baity, high-energy concert, connected by narrative scenes that capture some truths of Mercury’s story — and some wild inaccuracies.

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Perhaps the most glaring and widely criticized element of the film is its depiction — or lack thereof — of Mercury’s queerness. In addition to reinforcing the harmful "predatory gay person" stereotype and barely depicting the AIDS Crisis, the film fails to engage with what was surely a huge part of Mercury’s day-to-day life, as both a queer man and rockstar. While queer culture was on the fringes and not legitimized or accepted by a mainstream, straight/cis audience, that very same oppressive audience exploited queer entertainers like Mercury and David Bowie — holding them up on pedestals for their talent, but refusing to engage with who they were, as queer folks, offstage. "The emotional development of Mercury’s romance with Jim Hutton, his partner of seven years, is relegated to a single conversation," Aja Romano writes in their article for Vox. "Their entire loving, monogamous relationship is reduced onscreen to a single kiss and a brief hand squeeze."

While depicting a queer person’s relationships isn’t the be-all and end-all way to illustrate and explore their queerness — they are queer outside of any relationship, too — it’s still a frustrating example of how the film does a disservice to Mercury and the folks in his life. Instead of interrogating the way Mercury was simultaneously uplifted as a musician and marginalized as a queer man, the film actually perpetuates this exploitation by essentially straight-washing Mercury’s lived experience. Romano perhaps puts it best, writing, "What it really wants to be is a Queen concert, and what it really wants Freddie Mercury to be is a rock god instead of a real, queer human man."

So, what essential elements of Mercury’s life does Bohemian Rhapsody get right? And where else does it fumble? We’ve fact-checked a few of the film’s biggest moments and claims — read on to find out more.

Mercury Credited His Teeth for His Killer Singing Voice

RIGHT: In the film, Freddie acknowledges his "funny-looking" teeth when he first meets future bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor. "I was born with four additional incisors," the soon-to-be-frontman says. "More space in my mouth means more range."

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Photo Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/IMDb

In reality, Freddie, of course, did have four extra teeth at the back of his mouth, which pushed the front-most ones forward. While this overcrowding could have led to serious health issues, Freddie refused to have dental surgery, believing an operation could adversely affect his singing abilities. While the myth of his unusual four-octave vocal range has bitten the dust, it is true that the Queen singer had a unique, and incredible, voice — and, hey, why mess with success?

Mercury Became Queen’s Frontman Right After Tim Staffell Quit Thanks to an On-the-Spot Audition

WRONG: This is one moment where Bohemian Rhapsody really splits off from the truth. Why? Probably because this snappier, dramatized version of how Freddie landed his role in Queen plays better with moviegoing audiences. In the film, Queen’s frontman and bassist, Tim Staffell, quits, causing a young Freddie to approach band members May and Taylor after the show. He belts out a few bars of "Doing All Right" and — bam! — he’s aced the audition.

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Photo Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/IMDb

This is a far cry from the truth. In fact, Freddie had been pals with Staffell while the ex-bassist was in Queen’s predecessor, a band called Smile, and, through him, Freddie got to know May and Taylor, even becoming flatmates with his future bandmates. According to Rolling Stone, May recalled fanboy Freddie constantly badgering them about joining the band — and they didn’t need to hear an a cappella version of "Doing All Right" to relent once Staffell’s spot opened up.

Mercury and Mary Austin Were Very Close

RIGHT: According to the film, Freddie and Mary Austin maintained a friendship that lasted the span of the singer’s life. "All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but it’s simply impossible," Freddie once said of Austin. "The only friend I’ve got is Mary, and I don’t want anybody else. To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage."

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Photo Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/IMDb

In fact, Freddie proposed to her, but the offer of marriage didn’t stick. Nonetheless, Austin was by Freddie’s side when he passed away in 1991 of AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia and went on to inherit half of his wealth and estate, which, at the time, totaled a reported $75 million. What the film failed to capture? The duo’s first meeting. Contrary to what Bohemian Rhapsody shows, Freddie didn’t meet Austin 30 seconds before nailing his (also factually inaccurate) Queen audition.

Queen’s Live Aid Performance Was the Reason the Band Reunited

WRONG: In another display of self-serving, "it works on film" choices, Bohemian Rhapsody really trades truth for dramatic effect when it comes to the build up to the band’s iconic 1985 performance at Live Aid. In the film, Freddie reveals a $4 million solo deal he’s signed behind his colleagues’ backs; in the wake of the reveal, the irate bandmates go their separate ways.

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Photo Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/IMDb

But, according to Rolling Stone, the group never actually split up. In truth, all of the musicians were simply "burned out in 1983 after being on the road for a solid decade." Meaning, they all wanted a break from the tiring job, but not from being Queen. In fact, the never-estranged Queen bandmates started working on The Works in 1983.

Mercury Learned He Was HIV-positive Before the Live Aid Performance and Told His Bandmates

WRONG: During the rehearsals for Live Aid, the Bohemian Rhapsody version of Freddie reveals to his bandmates that he’s HIV positive but wants to keep his diagnosis private. While it’s unclear when, exactly, Freddie learned of his diagnosis, it certainly wasn’t before Queen’s Live Aid performance.

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Photo Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/IMDb

According to Rolling Stone, most historians and Queen aficionados believe Freddie learned about his diagnosis between 1986 and 1987. Undoubtedly, one of the most frustrating parts of this strange, shoehorned reveal is that Freddie simply says to his bandmates, "I’ve got it." It’s clear that his fellow musicians — despite being painted as some misfit, chosen family — don’t have the slightest clue about HIV/AIDS. To center a movie on a queer man during the 1980s and then virtually erase the pandemic that threatened his community is irresponsible, to say the least.