In an early scene from Bohemian Rhapsody, we see Freddie Mercury celebrating his birthday. Rami Malek, who portrays the late Queen frontman, sits at his parents’ dining-room table as his then-serious girlfriend hears Freddie’s birth name for the first time. His bandmates are informed that their lead singer was not, in fact, born and raised in London.
His parents’ brief and bullet-pointed corrections are nearly drowned out by Mercury, who suddenly begins serenading himself on piano and informs everyone of his new last name. His announcement seems to puzzle and insult his father, who asks, “So now the family name is not good enough for you?”
Mercury’s roots and religious background are two of the many topics that the musical drama, which arrived in a wide release on Friday, tackles what Times film critic Justin Chang calls a “multitasking” speed. And yet the biopic still leaves audiences wanting to know more intimate details about its subject, who was born Farrokh Bulsara.
Critics have already highlighted how the film lightly addresses Mercury’s sexuality, barely hinting at relationships with men and devoting very little screen time to his longtime and final partner, Jim Hutton.
Chang writes, “There is something woefully reductive, even pernicious, about the narrative shorthand used to elide Freddie’s sexual relationships with men: a glimpse of leather here, a truck-stop montage there.”
The backlash even prompted a response from Malek.
“He had a beautiful relationship with Jim Hutton, and we had a finite period in which we wanted to tell this story,” Malek told USA Today recently. “Believe me: There were conversations left and right about how to incorporate more of that story into this film. Freddie Mercury is a gay icon, and he’s an icon for all of us. I hope people do not feel that the film does a disservice to the community, and if it were me, I would’ve loved to have incorporated more.”
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And what about Mercury’s ethnicity and faith? Where did this enigmatic artist come from? Who are the people who raised him? And did he change his name because he was ashamed of his roots, as the aforementioned scene suggests? Those facets of his life are thoroughly captured in multiple biographies, although largely missing from Bohemian Rhapsody.
Mercury’s ethnicity has been debated at length since his death at age 45 in 1991 of AIDS-related complications. “Freddie’s real name was Farrokh Bulsara. Whether it’s Persian or Indian or British – everyone’s going to claim him,” Malek, who is a first-generation American of Egyptian descent, recently told GQ Middle East.
But what clearly and concisely stated in the film is fact: Freddie Mercury and his family identified as Indian Parsi. Freddie’s father, Bomi Bulsara (played in the movie by Ace Bhatti), was born in British-ruled India. Like many other young men of the Gujarat region of western India, he and his seven brothers left for the British protectorate of Zanzibar in search of work. He later found employment as a cashier for the British High Court – a job that often took him back to India, where he met his wife, Jer (who’s portrayed by Meneka Das in the film).
Their son, Farrokh, was born in Zanzibar on September 5, 1946. After attending primary school in the area, he was sent to St. Peter’s Church of England School, a prestigious all-boys boarding school in Panchgani, India. Though he was a noted athlete and a strong student, his grades slipped as his interest in music rose, and he opted instead to finish the last two years of his courses at the Roman Catholic St. Joseph’s Convent School in Zanzibar.
During the violent Zanzibar Revolution in 1964, he and his family used their British passports to flee to England. Because his parents wanted him to pursue a degree, Farrokh attended Isleworth College and Ealing Art College, and graduated in 1969 with a diploma in graphic art and design. He earned pocket money by working at Heathrow Airport, which is where Mercury’s story picks up in the movie.
Farrokh Bulsara became Freddie Mercury in stages. His boarding-school teachers and classmates gave him the nickname Freddie, which his parents then also adopted. The mythical Mercury the world came to know began to take shape in 1970. Queen bandmate Brian May has said that it’s tied to the lyrics of their song “My Fairy King,” which mentions a “Mother Mercury” in the final moments.
“He said, ‘I am going to become Mercury, as the mother in this song is my mother,’” May said, according to Lesley-Ann Jones’ book Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury. “And we were like, ‘Are you mad?’”
According to Mark Langthorne and Matt Richards’ book Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury, christening himself Freddie Mercury was part of crafting an onstage persona. “I think changing his name was part of him assuming this different skin,” May explained. “I think it helped him be this person that he wanted to be, and the Bulsara person was still there, but for the public he was going to be this different character.”
Yet the film explicitly states that Freddie Mercury was not just a stage name. The denial of his family surname could be considered a form of whitewashing, part of a broader career strategy. Jones wrote that Queen was formed during a decade when “a rock star, by definition, was ideally American, and hailed from California (the Beach Boys), New York (Lou Reed) Florida (Jim Morrison), Mississippi (Elvis Presley), or Washington state (Jimi Hendrix).
“Liverpool was also cool, thanks to the Beatles, as was London, courtesy of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones,” Jones added. “White Anglo-Saxon was favorite, black American almost as good. It was common in those days for musicians to blur the detail of their backgrounds, as this facilitated glamour and mystery.”
Additionally, Queen was founded two years after Conservative Party politician Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech, which fueled anti-immigration sentiment throughout the UK. This subtext is referenced when other characters use the slur “Paki” to address Mercury in the film.
Even though Mercury himself wasn’t formally religious, he was always fiercely protective of his parents and deeply respected that they adhered to the Parsi community’s Zoroastrian faith, which traces its roots back to ancient Persia. At age eight, Mercury took part in a Navjote ceremony, the religion’s intricate coming-of-age ritual that is similar to Judaism’s bar and bat mitzvah traditions and Catholicism’s confirmation sacrament. Before he died, he left specific instructions for his funeral to keep with Parsi tradition and be officiated by two white-robed Parsi priests.
Bohemian Rhapsody touches on Mercury’s reverence for his parents’ beliefs by lifting a signature line – “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” – directly from the faith’s “Three Good Things” ethos, as stressed in the Avesta, the religion’s sacred text.
But the strict faith also condemns homosexuality, considering it a form of demon worship. Mercury’s decision to change his name might have been a way to distance himself from the guilt and shame associated with his sexuality.
Peter Freestone, Mercury’s close friend and former assistant who helped execute the singer’s funeral, wrote in his book Freddie Mercury: An Intimate Memoir by the Man Who Knew Him Best: “Freddie had been far from being actively opposed to anyone’s religion or faith. The things that offended him were the trappings and hypocrisy involved in the various clerical and institutional aspects of established religion.”
In Freddie Mercury: A Kind of Magic, author Mark Blake noted that drummer Roger Taylor once said, “Freddie talked to me about being Parsee Indian and about his family. But it was all very private stuff. The Parsee culture was very different, and he felt that he wasn’t part of that culture. His mother was always wonderful to him, but he knew there was an immense gap in lifestyles.”
Because Mercury never spoke to the media in much detail about his personal life, his background or his childhood, we’ll never know why he felt compelled to leave the name of Farrokh Bulsara behind.
Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t try to solve that mystery, either. Already brisk, sanitized and even a little fictionalized, the movie boils the singer’s ethnic and religious identities down to just a few asides in a single, speedy scene. And even then, the discussion is silenced by a loud birthday ballad Mercury sings while staring at himself in a mirror.
It’s not that Farrokh Bulsara was “not good enough,” as his father asks in the movie. But maybe, like many people who grow up in different places than their parents did, the family name simply didn’t feel like his own.
Instead, he redirected the focus to Freddie Mercury: the charismatic performer, the vocal acrobat, the trailblazer who blended genres and penned the behemoth hit song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This is not only the persona he projected to the world, but also the person – after years of hopping continents and hiding his sexuality – he discovered in himself.
When he announces his new name in the film, he declares with an immovable confidence: “No looking back.”(Los Angeles Times/TNS)
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