Freddie Mercury was the most majestically debauched of all rock stars. A bad-boy diva with a famous overbite that made him look not just sexy but libidinous, he strutted around onstage with the come-hither flamboyance of a leering vampire prince. And, of course, no one in rock history had pipes like his. In his heyday as the lead singer of Queen, during the mid-to-late 1970s, Mercury crooned and wailed, but more than that he soared, like Robert Plant fused with the spirits of Cher and Tina Turner. He was as down-and-dirty as any rock ‘n’ roller, but his melodic glide could lift you to the heavens. Queen’s iconic anthem “We Will Rock You” was written as a call-and-response between the band and its fans, but the way Mercury sang it, with his snaky grandiloquence (“Buddy, you’re a boy, make a big noise playing in the street…”) the song came off as his unholy credo. The message was: He will rock you.
How do you cast the role of Freddie Mercury? It’s like finding someone to play Mick Jagger or Michael Jackson — at every moment, you’re going up against the real thing, a pop deity who has never stopped living inside our imaginations. Yet in the scrappy and sprawling rock biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rami Malek, the 37-year-old Egyptian-American actor from “Mr. Robot,” takes on the role of Freddie Mercury as if born to it. Swarthy and insinuating, if neither as tall nor as serpentine as Mercury, Malek has been outfitted with a set of fake front teeth, a recreation of the jutting Freddie overbite that works well enough, though it’s often a bit distracting, because there don’t appear to be any spaces between the pearly whites — it’s like seeing a Freddie who got his teeth capped. That said, Malek winds up looking, and inhabiting, the part to a remarkable degree. Watching “Bohemian Rhapsody,” we always feel like we’re seeing Freddie Mercury standing right in front of us.
Onstage, Malek’s Freddie is a studded leather peacock, swoony and liberated, letting the life force pour out of him in a glorious tremolo, most extraordinarily during the film’s climactic sequence, a song-for-song, move-for-move reenactment of Queen’s legendary reunion set at the London Live Aid concert in 1985 (though the film drops the infectious Elvis bop of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”). Malek, wearing a wife beater and arm band and Mercury’s signature honcho mustache, with liquid dark eyes that drink in the crowd and stare it down, struts and poses and leads the audience in vocal chants as if he owned the world (which, at that moment, Freddie sort of did).
Offstage, Malek nails the star’s fusion of charm and ego with a suavely nervy command. Freddie, born in Zanzibar (as Farrokh Bulsara), spends the early scenes, set in London in 1970, toggling between his proper Parsi family and the nightlife that lures him like a flame. When he learns that Smile, a local band he’s been following, has lost its lead singer, he belts out an impromptu croon in front of the band’s other members, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), just outside their club gig, and as soon as they hear what Freddie can do they hire him.
He already has the scarf-tossing pansexual darling bravado of a post-glam rock star, yet Freddie, in his way, is also a tea-time British gentleman. He becomes the band’s leader, renaming them Queen and getting them to sell their rickety touring van to make enough money for a demo tape, and he possesses an awesome belief in his own talent — right down to the four extra teeth on his upper jaw, which he proudly claims add to his vocal power. Yet the way Malek plays him, there’s a captivating sweetness to Freddie. He treats everyone with the same soft-edged, velvet-voiced regard (at least, until he becomes a drugged-out rock-star prima donna), notably Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the playful and loving lass he falls for and forms a tender domestic union with. When he struggles to keep the relationship going after he discovers, on the road, that his essential attraction is to men, it’s not just because he’s concealing his erotic drive (though that’s part of it). It’s as though he can’t bring himself to break Mary’s heart.
So with a performance as commanding as Rami Malek’s at its center, why isn’t “Bohemian Rhapsody” a better movie? Directed by Bryan Singer, who is now officially credited (after rumors that his name might be taken off the picture due to his failure to show up on set during the final weeks of filming late last year), the movie, despite its electrifying subject, is a conventional, middle-of-the-road, cut-and-dried, play-it-safe, rather fuddy-duddy old-school biopic, a movie that skitters through events instead of sinking into them. And it treats Freddie’s personal life — his sexual-romantic identity, his loneliness, his reckless adventures in gay leather clubs — with kid-gloves reticence, so that even if the film isn’t telling major lies, you don’t feel you’re fully touching the real story either. Freddie Mercury was a brazenly sexual person who felt compelled to keep his sexuality hidden, but that’s no excuse for a movie about him to be so painfully polite.
As a director, Singer has always been a big-budget short-order cook, the kind of filmmaker who brings more energy than texture to what he’s doing. “Bohemian Rhapsody” creates a watchable paint-by-numbers ride through the Queen saga, yet it’s rarely the movie it could or should have been. As scripted by Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour,” “The Theory of Everything”), it lacks the cathartic intimacy, the rippingly authentic you-are-there excitement of a great rock-world biopic like “Sid and Nancy” or “Get On Up” or “Love & Mercy.” Yet the film’s limitations may not end up mattering all that much, since its once-over-lightly quality could prove to be highly commercial (and Malek’s captivating performance is pure awards bait). The movie can work for mainstream audiences as a jukebox musical pegged to a heart-tugging semi-synthetic version of Freddie Mercury’s rise and fall.
In a strange way, it’s Queen’s music, delectable as it is, that’s most underserved by Singer’s one-thing-after-another sketchbook approach. In terms of the Queen songbook, the movie gets a few things wonderfully right, like the Live Aid performance, or the recording — and marketing — of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the one-of-a-kind existential rock-opera mash-up (“Nothing really matters..to me”) that, in 1975, became Queen’s signature six-minute radio masterpiece. The marathon recording session exuberantly evokes the song’s shoot-the-works quality, and there’s an irresistible sequence, built around the in-joke of casting Mike Myers — yes, Wayne Campbell himself — as an EMI executive, in which the members of Queen try, and fail, to convince the label to release “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single. The rest, as they say, is history.
Yet for all the attention it lavishes on its title song, “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t show much interest in how Freddie and Queen came together to carve out their heavy-metal/pop-echo-chamber wall of sound. The first true Queen single, “Killer Queen,” in 1974, becomes the occasion for a squabble between the band members and the producers of “Top of the Pops” about why the band has to lip-sync their performance of it on television. But even if that really happened, who cares? What we miss is how the band came up with “Killer Queen” in the first place — the merging of Mercury’s Tin Pan Alley jauntiness and Brian May’s guitar-god power, backed by the insane multi-tracking of Mercury’s voice into an infinitely mirrored chorus. That’s the invention of the Queen sound, and it’s barely an afterthought in the movie.
As much as that, we miss the formation of what Freddie was onstage. Partly because the film doesn’t want to upstage the Live Aid sequence, there’s hardly a moment where we see Freddie discover who he is as a performer. And here’s why that’s a crucial omission. It wouldn’t be homophobic — in fact, it would be homophobic to deny — that Freddie Mercury brought a spark of gay sensibility to rock ‘n’ roll. He envisioned the concert stage, and the recording studio, as a thunder-rock cabaret, and his vocals projected a newly naked male emotionalism that was stunning in its larger-than-life intensity.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” has a good time showing how Queen conceived a handful of their iconic hits, from the ominous funk of “Another One Bites the Dust” to the gladiatorial surge of “We Are the Champions.” But for most of the film, the awesome expressiveness of Freddie Mercury, the way he used his voice as an enraptured instrument of agony and ecstasy, isn’t front and center. It’s telling that Queen’s 1976 single “Somebody to Love” isn’t featured in the movie (it’s just background music), because not only is it one of their greatest songs, it’s one of Mercury’s most ardently autobiographical. It could have been an epiphany — but the film backs away from it, because it’s backing away from the emotional bravura of what Freddie Mercury was singing.
As “Bohemian Rhapsody” goes on, the band falls apart and comes back together in inevitable, if not always historically accurate, melodramatic ways. The camaraderie among the members of Queen is fun to behold, because the film captures what different cloths they were cut from, and the actors fill in their roles — Gwilym Lee is especially good as Brian May, with his Louis XIV mane, virtuoso guitar licks, and jovial straight-arrow crispness. When Freddie reveals to the band, during rehearsals for the Live Aid show, that he has HIV (even though he wasn’t, in fact, diagnosed until two years later), it’s moving, because at that moment the film touches the truth of all great rock bands: that they’re brothers. Freddie’s Live Aid performance gets reconfigured into his secret way of fighting back against the disease. He’s sick, with an ailing throat, but he looks and performs as though he’s in his prime, a show-must-go-on mirage that’s a testament to his rock ‘n’ roll fervor. In a sequence like that, “Bohemian Rhapsody” nails Queen’s majesty. What eludes the film is Freddie Mercury’s mystery.