“Bohemian Rhapsody,” the rock ’n’ roll biopic about Freddie Mercury and Queen, turns out to be much more fun to think about than actually experience. (The film’s trailer does a great job of selling it, but, um, that’s what trailers are supposed to do.)
The trouble isn’t really star Rami Malek, who gives a mesmerizing if opaque performance as Mercury. The problem is that the movie doesn’t have anything interesting to say. “What on earth is it about?” a secondary character asks at one point about the band’s new single, a genre-bender called “Bohemian Rhapsody.” What the movie’s about, apparently, is a standard rise-fall-rise story.
If you’re ever banged your head on a car dashboard to the glorious operatic absurdity of that title song, of course, you may not care. (Mike Myers, whose “Wayne’s World” character re-popularized our love for Queen’s camp-rock in the 1990s, has a brief and funny turn as a clueless label executive.) And if you’re truly a fan, the highs of “Bohemian Rhapsody” may carry you over the sometimes cringingly generic rock-bio lows.
Most of those highs come in the film’s first third, which doesn’t so much dramatize the band’s ascension to pop glory as whisk us along for the ride. Mercury is introduced in 1970 as an immigrant kid loading baggage at London’s Heathrow airport and nursing secret dreams of fame; his immigrant Parsi parents call him Farrokh, most Brits think he’s Pakistani, and only in his head is he Freddie Mercury.
Not for long. Brazening his way into Smile, a neighborhood rock group headed by guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee, rangy and sane) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), Farrokh announces he’s the group’s new vocalist. “Not with those teeth, mate,” May says, and, in his defense, it’s never clear whether Malek is wearing the prosthetic Freddie Mercury choppers or they’re wearing him. But then May and Taylor hear that four-octave voice.
Malek has cut a curious figure on TV’s “Mr. Robot” and elsewhere; he can use his large, lamp-like eyes and passive demeanor to suggest enigmatic passions roiling beneath the surface. His Freddie is an oddball but a confident oddball, dragging his bandmates along as — according to this movie — he reinvents their name, their sound, and their success.
A six-minute single combining arena-rock guitar riffs and multi-tracked fake operatic arias? No one thinks it’ll work — the montage of Taylor over-dubbing “Galileo!” about 42 times is rich — and even the other musicians aren’t sold on what they call “Freddie’s . . . thing.” Forty years later, we’re meant to chuckle with happy retro irony. And we do.
It’s when “Bohemian Rhapsody” delves into Mercury’s private life that it seems heavy-handed, clammy, and obvious. If you buy the script by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan (“The Queen”), the singer didn’t really know he was gay until the group’s American tour, even though his wife did. (Lucy Boynton plays Mary Austin, and both actress and character are very good and very ignored.)
The movie’s middle third finds Mercury retreating to a London mansion like a glam-rock Norma Desmond, attended to by a manipulative hanger-on named Paul Prenter (the appropriately named Allen Leech). The latter is a gay predator so cartoonish that he lacks only a mustache to twirl, and as he keeps the star from his bandmates and the rest of the world, “Bohemian Rhapsody” conjures up a leather demimonde that’s at times outright demonic.
(Side note: Oh, to imagine what the late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder could have done with this material. Or what he did do: See 1975’s “Fox and His Friends,” whose plot at times eerily mirrors the new film. Mercury almost certainly saw it, since one of his close friends was “Fox” actress and Fassbinder regular Barbara Valentin.)
The sybaritic coke-fueled downfall scenes of “Bohemian Rhapsody” are saddled with awful dialogue. (“Freddie, you’ve been burning the candle at both ends.” “Yes, but the glow is so divine.” Edna St. Vincent Millay wants her poem back.) More to the point, the film’s second half seems so nervous about how to portray Mercury’s private life to a broader base of Queen fans — especially the group’s American arena-rock audience — that it develops a spirit-sapping split personality. As did the singer himself.
The movie huffs and puffs to get us to the finale, at the 1985 Live Aid concert, where Queen really did steal the show — unlike a lot of the acts, they had something to prove — and which “Bohemian Rhapsody” lets unfold at almost the set’s full length. (No “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” but yes, the medley of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” the latter the greatest-ever rock anthem that could double as a Fascist marching song.)
At the end, we’re left with some great music, a central performance that never fully connects, and a number of spurious facts: Despite what the movie says, Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until 1987, two years after Live Aid; he died in 1991. All in all, the movie’s a muddled and overlong experience, one that every so often drifts into dull, unintentional camp.
Was intentional camp maybe part of the plan? The production of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a fraught one, since director Bryan Singer (the “X-Men” movies) was fired and replaced by Dexter Fletcher with two weeks to go. (Singer gets sole screen credit.) The resulting movie has everything except a point of view. That its subject was a flamboyantly gay performer playing to the straightest of mass audiences is an irony the film’s not equipped to deal with — even if Mercury made it his life’s work.
Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan. Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee. At Boston theaters, West Newton, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 134 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content, and language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.