Freddie Mercury — the biggest rock star ever to come from Zanzibar — was a charismatic talent who combined the cocky stage presence of Mick Jagger with a rich voice that could purr or explode over four octaves and gleefully hitched a ride on the Bowie/Bolan wave of androgyny while never looking back. Or maybe he was just a hard-working guy and a loyal son who wanted to make his immigrant parents proud. That's the choice provided by Bohemian Rhapsody, a watered-down biography of the Queen vocalist that runs dutifully through the band's catalog of hits but strains itself trying to avoid controversy.
Bohemian Rhapsody bends a few details to create a contrived plot in which Mercury loses his way, succumbs to sex, drugs and fame, but is redeemed by the power of rock & roll. Forced dramatic arc aside, there's not much more to the film than a few career high points, told along the same lines as every old MGM musical biography where an off-screen narrator tells us, "And then I wrote ..."
The biggest problem with this kind of biography — especially one that treads so carefully around the wilder threads of Mercury's life — is that it's kind of dull. Sure, the band has conflicts, but not for long. We see, for example, some of the members dismissing a new song as "disco" — until they start playing it and it turns out to be "Another One Bites the Dust." Mercury questions one of guitarist Brian May's song ideas, until it turns into "We Will Rock You." Thomas Edison may not agree with the formula, but in this film, musical genius is 99 percent inspiration and 1 percent bickering.
It's not entirely surprising that the film is a directionless mess; director Bryan Singer left the production early amid reports of on-set clashes with the cast and off-set sexual misconduct. (His replacement, Dexter Fletcher, receives no credit but will be earning his rock bio stripes next year with the Elton John biography Rocket Man.) But what could all the fighting have been about? The film itself is the model of timidity.
Aside from one clever touch — ending the title track with excerpts from its harshest reviews — the filmmakers don't seem to have much passion for the music or the players. Aside from the climactic recreation of Queen's appearance at Live Aid in 1985, the concert scenes are reduced to cliched montages: a few snippets of music while names of the cities where Queen performed float across the stage. Even Mercury's sexuality, as much a factor in his stage presence as his voice, is, for much of the film, reduced to crude nods and smoldering glances worthy of a 1940s GI scare film about syphilis.
Rami Malek provides a great deal of energy as Mercury, although inevitably the performance takes on the quality of a parody, a recreation of the images we've already seen on MTV. Unfortunately, the filmmakers make a great deal of Mercury's dental condition (he had four extra teeth in his upper bridge, which he credited for his vocal range), and the actor often seems worried to distraction by his prosthetic teeth. Biographical films, especially about flamboyant characters like Mercury, always walk a thin line between recreation and caricature. Rockstar impersonations are a delicate thing, and a bad dental plate is all it takes to turn an earnest performance into a well-intentioned but shallow pastiche.