If we’re lucky, we’ve killed a man. A self that has to pass away for something new to be born. People are buying tickets for Bohemian Rhapsody while critics are hung up on the lack of obscene shots or complaining about production drama or busy lambasting the film for suggesting (they think) that Freddie Mercury’s downward spiral was due to his homosexuality (it isn’t). All of these critiques seem mere diversions from engaging with the film’s central message, one that asks us to take off our pair of sunglasses and look at our lives in the dark. If you want an entertaining biopic of Queen, you’ll still get that with Rami Malek’s stellar performance. But the through-line of the film is the suffering and heartache of making a self—not just one constructed for the public—but a unified self that a person can live with in the empty hours.
My friend always tells me the beginning is more than half the whole. The opening shots show Mercury walking through the backstage of the Live Aid concert and ascending the stairs to perform. We see his back and the massive crowds before him. This shot will come back to us at the end of the film, but in the beginning it cuts away to a young Farrokh. He’s working the baggage loading zone at an airport suffering racial slurs from his coworkers before heading home for dinner and then heading out to hear a local band. The quick sketches don’t diminish the story. It’s a narrative audiences love because we want to believe our lives could curve, if not to fame, then at least beyond the struggles and dailyness of our own beginning. A British rock band, but an American tale if ever there was one. How many of us are too busy bootstrapping into a new social and economic class to see the self we’ve given up (perhaps rightly) to remake ourselves in another image? It’s a poor read of the movie to demand it accurately tell us about Mercury’s life, and audiences know this if only intuitively. Starting over and fashioning a way of being in the world rarely has anything to do with facts because facts so rarely capture truth. Save information for the news; give me an epic rock and roll myth and transform me.
Like most make overs, it begins with clothes. The sartorial journey starts when Freddie compliments Mary on her coat. Clothes make the man, and the change in outfits is the constant visual reminder of the self Freddie is leaving behind and the one he is making. In a pivotal scene, he throws a huge party and is dressed in cape and crown. HIs clothes are the most over-the-top to that moment and remain the highest fashion statement. We begin to see that fame is no bed of roses. He’s paying his dues at a high personal cost. There is no doubt that he is creating something, a self both public and private. What remains unclear at the end of the post-party scene is whether or not our mythic rock legend will have the inner strength to change some, if not all, of the paths he walks. And I suspect we wonder as much for ourselves as we do for the fiction on screen. The dark of the theatre allows us a moment into our own unknowns, our most intimate fears.
And the cinematography doesn’t shy away from intimate shots. Eyes become the focus of many character close ups throughout the movie, and Freddie’s sunglasses become more than an accessory. We don’t always have access to his eyes, his thoughts. And neither does he. We begin to wonder how much of our own mind we lack access to in the busy hours of work and play and striving. In his attempt to leave home and find another, he nearly loses what he sought. The order of events in the film are not accurate, but that is beside the point. What comes through is the risk we all run when we leave childhood and home and family and seek a new self and shelter and bonds of love in a land that is unlike the one we knew. A reckoning will come, though we hope not the high bill but more of a reconciling, a moment when we let our old self kiss the new. Or hold the hand of another in front of parents who we feared could never understand our holding. Bohemian Rhapsody is like all fables of fabulous proportions. Malek’s Freddie Mercury is nothing short of legend, and that is why we do not hesitate to see our our lives in his story. Some of us are composing a self that we can live with alone in the quiet hours, one worthy of our solitude. And I think we want to see that, like Freddie, we are shaping someone worthy of giving to another.
Bohemian Rhapsody is mostly myth, and that’s precisely why the general public is smarter than the critics. We may not take a new name that places us among the gods. But don’t we all know what it’s like to want to make something new of ourselves, our lives? We sense our personal stories might be touched by a god, some wandering star bearing our name. We want lives that arc, if not toward the heavens, then at least to some of the futures we dreamed—futures different from the lives of our parents. We move around and move forward, our original names tucked in our hearts alongside our childhood faith. We can’t escape ourselves no matter how far the winds of fame or fate blow us. But we can strive for what Freddie says he gives the people, what they want: a touch of the divine.
Alexandra Barylski is Managing Editor of Marginalia Review of Books, an educator, and poet. Her work can be found in print and online. She is currently attending Yale Institute of Sacred Music.