Freddie Mercury’s story did not come easy to the screen. A version slated for Sacha Baron Cohen lingered in turnaround for years, then died on the vine; Bohemian Rhapsody’s original director, Bryan Singer, left weeks before shooting was completed (Dexter Fletcher, uncredited, finished the film). Maybe unavoidably, the movie that’s emerged from all that has the distinct whiff of compromise and art by committee — the opposite, in other words, of nearly everything Queen’s flamboyant, defiant frontman stood for.
Rhapsody may be a conventional rock biopic in nearly every respect, but it has the gift of an utterly unconventional star in Rami Malek. Known for his coiled portrayal of a painfully interior cybersecurity expert on USA’s Mr. Robot, he is completely transformed in the title role — a human unicorn made almost entirely of id, wild hair, and spandex.
More than mere good acting, though, Malek has the ineffable pixie dust the part requires (if not the teeth; the famous Freddie overbite is prosthetic). It’s that inborn charisma that makes his Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, entrancing from the moment he steps on screen, even as an anonymous London loner casually denigrated by passersby with the ethnic slur “Paki.” And it’s what makes the marks the movie hits so hard — a boilerplate Behind the Music arc of humble beginnings and meteoric rise, druggy downfall and final triumph — feel less bog-standard than they are.
Where the movie stops short, bizarrely, is at Freddie’s bedroom door. Instead, screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) leaves much of his true sexuality in the margins, leaning heavily instead on his lone heteronormative romance (a lovely Lucy Boynton). That may just be the calculations of commercial moviemaking, or some misguided sense of legacy protection on the part of surviving bandmates Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, all of whose avatars come off uniformly well, if ancillary, on screen.
There’s an unfortunate silliness, too, in the script’s training-wheels approach to storytelling, as when the band’s label head (a blustering, ginger-bearded Mike Myers) loudly insists that teenagers in cars will never bang their heads to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or when “We Will Rock You” materializes in a single gee-whiz moment, seemingly conjured whole from handclaps and studio air.
Much smarter is the use of Queen’s legendary 1985 Live Aid performance as a framing device: all four members locked in a sort of mesmeric trance on stage, with Malek as Mercury at the center — aware that the end was coming for him, but still singing the band into immortality with every ecstatic, electric note.