I was never a huge Queen fan. The band’s sheer grandiosity — I mean, that’s what they were all about, right? — and indulgences of both the sonic and lifestyle variety flew in the face of the minimalist, punk, anti-arena rock ethos that supplied the north star of my youth.
It was also hilarious to me that a band called “Queen” ruled the classic-rock airwaves and found common currency with the macho heavy metal set in the homophobia-infused cultural milieu of my Kentucky upbringing in the 1980s.
But within that contradiction lies the essential subversive genius of Queen before they were turned into a caricature by Wayne’s World. As Rami Malek, inhabiting lead singer Freddie Mercury, says in the new biopic Bohemian Rhapsody: Queen is a group of misfits who belong to the misfits, or something to that effect. Or as Gwilym Lee, portraying the band’s homely guitar player Brian May, puts it, Queen is family. And as both tried to explain to their producer, they didn’t have to be any one thing. They could be experimental, operatic, histrionic, rocking and anthemic all at once.
Once you get past the fact that Freddie Mercury exhibited many of the characteristics of self-indulgence and narcissism that became ’70s rock-star tropes, there’s a deeper and more inspiring story in Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s amazing to consider that Mercury, or Farrokh Bulsara, as his parents knew him, was an immigrant who didn’t arrive in England until he was 18 years old. Also that he refused to restrict himself to a single sexuality when the stigma against queer sex put anyone who didn’t toe the heterosexual line at risk of blackmail.
So, when Mercury plays Live Aid, which would become what many consider one of the greatest live rock performances of all time, suspecting that he has AIDS and his time is limited, it feels like a triumph — and one that the whole world can share.