Three days later, I’m still processing Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s somehow both the right and wrong movie about Queen, the audiovisual parallel to a $5 collection you impulsively bought on a road trip in some backwater death-rattle town because you were dying to hear “Somebody to Love” right now.
Inevitably, you don’t care what’s missing. You don’t care about its chronological mayhem or deliberate fictions. You don’t care, because the music is here, wild, exuberant and loud. And there’s Freddie Mercury again, larger than life, larger than ever, as he was always meant to be.
I saw it at the Pix, my favorite spot, overwhelmed by the size of the afternoon crowd. Queen tees proliferated. Ephemera dotted the lobby. Anecdotes floated in passing conversation. Screens broadcast footage from Queen’s 1986 stand at Wembley Stadium, the triumphant epilogue to their Live Aid show the summer before.
The real Freddie preened silently, but I recognized every gesture. As a young man, I exhausted the same video. I also owned its companion album, Live Magic, one of maybe five Queen titles available in Albany from 1986 to 1989, the others being Live Killers, A Kind of Magic, The Works, and a hits perennial that ended at 1980’s Flash Gordon. (We won’t count the twelventy zillion copies of Hot Space moldering in cutout bins).
As a Pix mass we packed the dark. I wound up in the very front row, thanks to a dumb quirk: I like to be as close to the screen as possible, without anyone in front of me. We laughed at the proper spots, sighed in recognition at the usual numbers, and sometimes even sang along. When Brian May unspooled what became “We Will Rock You” (albeit in the wrong decade), the two dudes behind me began absently kicking the back of my seat.
An occasional sniffle wet the drama — some of it manufactured from nothing for that specific purpose — and when it all ended with building-sized footage of the real, honest-to-God, flesh-and-bombastic-bone young Queen miming “Don’t Stop Me Now,” we erupted in collective applause. My body went numb during “The Show Must Go On,” Innuendo’s (1991) thrilling coda (and a much more urgent sayonara than the playful “Was It All Worth It,” from 1989’s The Miracle). I was moved as hell despite myself, falling for the band again — an impossibility, I thought, as I’ve been a die-harder for nearly four decades.
Yet while we hugged and wept and agreed that yes, it was a shame Freddie died so young, I was troubled by thoughts that have plagued me for 27 years. Where was this adulation in America when Freddie was still alive? Where were all these super-fans when Queen was still recording new material, when its albums were stiffing and its frontman absorbed the brunt of an entrenched homophobia? Where was this unity when the band was declared passe? And, most importantly: Why did Freddie have to die for so many people to understand how authentically and consistently great Queen was?
You can’t fault anyone born after 1980. That just isn’t fair. As far as they know, Queen’s always been universally beloved.
But we old folks have short memories. Mercury/May/Taylor/Deacon, et al, were monsters to the end in Europe, sure, but on this dopey dirt-patch, they began tumbling toward insignificance around 1982. Freddie became a target of ridicule for his brazen sexuality, which apparently killed his rock ’n’ roll credentials. With each new album — The Works (1984), A Kind of Magic (1986) and The Miracle — someone would sigh, “I can’t believe anyone still listens to those washed-up old f**s.”
So, there’s roughly a decade in the U.S. where Queen meant squat. Being a fan in the ’80s, championing their output post-commercial-peak (“Hang on in There” is as valid as “Dragon Attack,” right?), was exasperatingly lonely.
That changed, of course, in November 1991, when a million Freddie fans were born overnight. His demise came too quickly as well. Already frail and fading, he announced late that month what fans had long feared: He was dying. On Nov. 24 — just days later — he was gone, that magnificent voice cut down.
The world went into mourning. So did we, but it felt artificial. AIDS had killed Freddie Mercury, ended him at age 45, making him a tragic figure and erasing awful prejudices. Now he was harmless. Acceptable. Sanitizable. His legacy became more palatable, his songs more precious and meaningful. Queen’s discography was explored in depth, ruling culture like a morbid apology. Freddie became a god. But for some of us, he always was. And at 19, I didn’t know whether to be gratified or infuriated by that desperate post-mortem rush to conversion.
At this late hour, however, all is forgiven. We’ve lived with the legend of Queen far longer than with the reality. More time has elapsed between Wayne’s World, the movie, and Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie, than between Wayne’s World, the movie, and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the song. (Mike Myers appears in Rhapsody in a bit of stunt casting that winks its semi-clever self blind.) Were Freddie born the day he died, he’d have already lived more than half his life. It’s wrong to continue keeping score and nursing grudges.
Bohemian Rhapsody ends where it should: that historic 1985 Live Aid performance, which I’d watched unfold in real time on my parents’ 21-inch television. It in no way compares to the cinematic experience, where you’re thrown on stage into the spellbinding intimacy of an explosive band, charged by supreme charisma (here essayed by the magnetic Rami Malek, in a role so few could tame), or flown over the computerized throngs at Wembley.
In tighter shots are period-dressed extras, young and old, crying and singing, hugging and singing, crying and hugging and singing and crying. But they’re not a 1985 audience. They’re not reacting to Queen as an active force but to a memory or, more likely, a fantasy of what they believe Queen to be. That’s the meal Rhapsody serves. It’s the medicine we want, the comfort we seek, the conclusion we deserve in these fraught times. To hear “We Are the Champions” and believe it again.
Queen always knew how to put on a show. Bohemian Rhapsody proves they still do.