The film on one of the biggest bands in the world intends to omit its frontman’s personal struggle with the disease, when his dying wish was for us to unite in the face of stigma
The last music video Freddie Mercury filmed was “These Are The Days Of Our Lives” in May 1991. Its making is one of the most poignant stories of Queen legend. Mercury commands the camera with a consummate performance, harking back to a time when “the bad days were few”. Behind the scenes, he was visibly frail and sick. The video was filmed in black and white to mask his appearance. In archive footage, he needs two hands to lift a champagne glass.
Publicly, Mercury denied he had a sexually transmitted disease. Until on November 23 1991, a short statement was released to the rabidly speculating British press: “I wish to confirm that I have been diagnosed with HIV positive and have Aids… I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.” Less than twenty-four hours later, Mercury passed away in his Kensington home at the age of 45.
“These Are The Days Of Our Lives” became a sort of visual shrine to Mercury’s tragedy. Not only in its bittersweet lyrics, and every grieving fan who took solace in his whispered ‘I still love you’, but in giving a new public face to the horror of Aids. An incurable illness which had been shamelessly associated by media with social pariahs – homosexuals and heroin users – had taken the world’s most loved frontman. And his dying wish was for us to unite in its fight.
Hence why it’s bewildering that the new Freddie Mercury biopic intends to omit any reference to Aids. With former Queen bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor as executive producers, it was announced last week that the film will concentrate on the “fabulous Queen years” without mentioning Mercury’s personal life. In this respect, I suppose, it continues Mercury’s saddest legacy when living: unable to openly acknowledge his sexuality and appetite for male lovers.
In fact, stripping the Aids narrative from the world’s most high-profile victim explicitly fails to fight against HIV/Aids. Had Mercury not stopped taking medication when he began losing his sight, and struggled on to 1996, he might have survived. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) has saved millions of lives around the world, making HIV into a highly manageable condition within the developed world. But a huge Western problem when living with HIV is stigma.
“Telling the truthful story of Mercury’s life could be a potent tool in combating that stigma... and ultimately, the stories of those men we lost to Aids need to be remembered”
I’ve written before about the appalling way some gay men abuse one another online for being brave enough to state they’re living with HIV. There are hundreds of YouTube videos of people living with diabetes talking about their condition: you will not find the same numbers for HIV. And when interviewing people for a play I wrote on the subject, one young African woman told how she waited until Aids had developed before finding out she had HIV – in 2012.
Stigma originates from fear, and fear stems from ignorance. No one living in cultures where we have free access to life-saving HIV medication should be developing Aids in the modern day. But lack of education about the virus contributes to a dangerous silence. The terror of ostracisation from one’s community can be particularly potent amongst minorities like LGBT and BME, who have already grown up experiencing an element of ostracisation from society.
Telling the truthful story of Mercury’s life could be a potent tool in combating that stigma. Part of my reason for writing The HIV Monologues was to illustrate that the fight against HIV is us against a virus, not positive versus negative, and we need to use empathy to reduce stigma. Yet a play by that name is only going to reach a certain demographic. With a Hollywood biopic directed by Bryan Singer, millions would be illuminated about a subject ill-taught in schools.
And ultimately, the stories of those men we lost to Aids need to be remembered. “Because so many people who lived through that era died, and people like me are getting older, there’s a history there that’s in danger of being lost, ” says Matthew Hodson, the executive director of NAM aidsmap. “If they do airbrush that from the film, it just feels really sad they’ve wasted an opportunity to talk about this devastating time for our history and the gay community.”
Mercury was one of the greatest icons of the twentieth century. His charisma sizzled in the unforgettable visions of his health: strutting at Live Aid with a voice that soared. Any biopic of his life would want to capture that muscularly camp masculinity. But if they omit the true reasons that saw him film his last video whilst dying, perhaps they give us only half the man’s life, and fail to honour him and all those worldwide in the ongoing fight against HIV/Aids.