Near the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Freddie Mercury, played by Rami Malek, reveals to his bandmates in Queen that he is suffering from HIV/AIDS just before their most famous performance of all time –the 1985 Live Aid benefit show at Wembley Stadium. But while it serves as a powerful, emotional way to conclude the film’s telling of the band’s story, it’s not what actually happened in real life.
First, in the film the band is offered the opportunity to perform at Live Aid at a time when the members had gone their separate ways to work on solo projects. This is true to a certain degree, but also misleading. According to Lesley Ann-Jones’ biography “Mercury,” the band went off to work on solo projects after their 1982 album “Hot Space,” reuniting a year later to record “The Works,” the album that brought to us “Radio Ga Ga.”
But Queen embarked on a world tour in August 1984, continuing to do shows throughout the rest of that year and also in January, April and May of 1985. So when Live Aid came around, they not only didn’t have to reunite, they’d played a string of shows less than two months earlier.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” also suggests it was Mercury who primarily wanted to go solo, causing tensions between band members. In real life, Mercury’s solo effort “Mr. Bad Guy” was released just three months before the Live Aid show, and by that time drummer Roger Taylor had two solo albums under his belt.
Finally there’s the question of Mercury’s illness. In “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Mercury learns he has HIV/AIDS just prior to reuniting with Queen for Live Aid, which is what leads him to approach the band and ask forgiveness for the tensions between them. It’s actually not known precisely when Mercury learned he was HIV positive. But according to Jim Hutton, Mercury’s partner from 1985 until his death, Mercury was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in April of 1987.
It’s one of several changes to Mercury’s life story that earned disapproval from many critics, and accusations from one particularly angry critic that the film disrespects the vocalist’s legacy.
“I’ve never seen a film distort its facts in such a punitive way. It’s like the movie wants to punish Freddie Mercury,” wrote UPROXX’s Mike Ryan. “Mercury’s tragic death from AIDS was a defining moment in the early ’90s fight for AIDS awareness. To now retcon his illness into his Live Aid performance seems flippant and cruel.”
What is indisputably true, however, is that Queen’s Live Aid set was the show’s highlight and is still considered possibly the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. It wasn’t the band’s swan song — they still had half a decade of acclaim, not to mention a few more enduring classic songs ahead of them before Mercury’s tragic death in 1991 — but it cemented Queen’s, and Freddie’s legacy forever.