Bohemian Rhapsody

Yesterday Kish and I went to screen Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen.  Biopics about rock stars have become something of a genre unto themselves these days — according to the previews yesterday, there’s another one coming out soon about Elton John, by the way — and Bohemian Rhapsody is a worthy addition to the playlist.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODYThe film begins as Mercury and Queen prepare to perform at the Live Aid concert, then takes us back to the group’s earliest roots.  We meet Farrokh Bulsara, a buck-toothed baggage handler at a British airport who dreams of doing something bigger.  He finds a struggling band called Smile playing in pubs, and when the group loses its lead singer, Queen’s journey begins and Farrokh becomes Freddie Mercury.  The film traces the artistic arc of the group, which became one of the most inventive, boundary-breaking bands of the ’70s — as the song that gives the film its name attests — and the band steadily moves from playing small towns to filling some of the largest stadiums in the world, with the flamboyant Mercury leading the way.

As the band’s story is told we get glimpses into Freddie Mercury’s personal life, from his frosty relationship with his Indian parents and their Zoroastrian faith, to his long-term bond with a woman he called the love of his life, to his embrace of his gay lifestyle and ultimately to his discovery that he had AIDS at a time when that diagnosis was viewed as a death sentence.  And, as always seems to be the case with rock star biopics, enormous success and fame have their price, and we see Mercury dealing with drugs and alcohol, leaving the band that was like a family to him, and supporting the creeps and hangers-on who always seem to find a way to latch on to the successful creative minds and sap them of their unique energy.  But Mercury breaks the downward spiral, sheds the leeches, and reunites with the group just in time for a triumphant performance at the Live Aid concert.

Bohemian Rhapsody has been criticized for glossing over some aspects of Mercury’s life, especially his sexuality, but the film is telling a wide-ranging story that simply doesn’t allow it to delve deeply into every relationship — whether it be Mercury’s relationships with fellow bandmates or his relationships with his lovers.  The result is a film that increased my appreciation of Queen and the dazzling personality who was one of its principal creative forces.  And Rami Malek is himself brilliant as the brilliant Freddie Mercury.

Why are there so many rock star biopics?  I think it’s because the music world is home to a lot of very interesting stories that are well worth telling.  The story of Freddie Mercury and Queen is one of those stories, and Bohemian Rhapsody tells it well.

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AIDS And Alzheimer’s

The New York Times has a thought-provoking piece contrasting the public health reaction to AIDS to the public health reaction to Alzheimer’s disease.

The article notes that this year AIDS has fallen out of the list of the top 10 causes of death in New York City — replaced by Alzheimer’s.  In fact, the article reports, research now indicates that deaths attributable to the latter disease are grossly underestimated and that it may be responsible for nearly as many deaths in one year as AIDS has been in the more than three decades since its terrible emergence.  And yet, while AIDS research remains a public health focus supported by a robust social movement, there is no similarly active movement lobbying for increased Alzheimer’s research, prevention, and treatment.  Why?

IMG_2947Although the article correctly points out the success of the fight against AIDS as a public health movement, it was not always that way.  In the early days of AIDS, there was a lot of denial and politicization of the underlying health issues, discussed in appalling detail in the excellent book And the Band Played On:  Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts.  It wasn’t until people got past the denial and politicization and focused on the awful public health cost of AIDS that effective education, prevention, and ultimately treatment programs were developed.  The fact that the disease was so terrible in its toll, and cut down our friends and family members in the prime of their lives, helped to drive the public health effort.

With Alzheimer’s, the toll of the disease is great, but the catalyzing circumstances that energized the fight against AIDS seem to be lacking.  Alzheimer’s is an affliction primarily of the elderly, who are regarded as already in their twilight years.  It’s a painful and somewhat embarrassing disease for surviving family members to deal with, as the victim gradually loses his mental faculties and all memories of loved ones.  So far as we know, Alzheimer’s is not readily communicable, and we’ve already got facilities in place where those unfortunate souls who become debilitated can be kept and cared for while the disease does its grim and inexorable work.  Those different circumstances, perhaps, explain why Alzheimer’s simply doesn’t command the same kind of attention that AIDS received.

Or, alternatively, it may be that these factors have simply kept Alzheimer’s in the denial stage for a much longer period, and only now are people finally confronting the disease and its awful consequences, which leave formerly vibrant people empty, haunted shells of their former selves.  The aging of the Baby Boom generation no doubt will help to increase awareness and attention.  I hope so, because the clock is ticking, and the prospect of contracting Alzheimer’s should scare the hell out of us.