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'Bohemian Rhapsody' review: Stilted, stagy Queen, Freddie Mercury biopic

Gwilym Lee, left, who plays Brian May, Rami

Gwilym Lee, left, who plays Brian May, Rami Malek, who stars as Freddie Mercury, and Joe Mazzello, who portrays John Deacon, in "Bohemian Rhapsody." Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox / Alex Bailey

PLOT The rise of rock star Freddie Mercury and his band, Queen.

CAST Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Mike Myers

RATED PG-13 (language and sexual themes)

LENGTH 2:14

BOTTOM LINE A straightforward portrait of a rocker who was anything but.

An argument breaks out at a recording studio in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Bryan Singer's biopic about Freddie Mercury, the flamboyant frontman of Queen. Ignoring the bickering, bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) plucks out a line: Domp, domp, domp — da dom-dom, da-da, domp. Mercury's head swivels around. “That's pretty good, actually,” he says.

And that, folks, is how Queen wrote “Another One Bites the Dust!”

No kidding — this is what passes for a you-are-there moment in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The story of a charismatic rock star living at the peak of rock history — the mid-1970s — “Bohemian Rhapsody” comes built-in with a headbanging soundtrack, 20 years' worth of costume changes and, in true rock fashion, a tragically early death (Mercury died at the age of 45, from complications of AIDS). By rights, this ought to be a glammed-up, sexually-charged, four-octave blowout. Instead, it's a stilted, stagy, hopelessly corny biopic, the kind of thing “Walk Hard” was meant to prevent.

Don't blame Rami Malek, the “Mr. Robot” star who plays Mercury. He infuses the singer with a convincing combination of vulnerability, arrogance and artistic ambition. With his girlfriend, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), he's a lost puppy; around the poisonous Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), an apparent lover, he's as sour as late-period Bette Davis. And around his band — which includes Gwilym Lee as guitarist Brian May and Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor — Mercury clearly wears the crown.

The script, by Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), feels like a Wikipedia entry with dialogue. Mercury often talks like a rock journalist, as when he describes the film’s iconic title song as an attempt to tear down musical boundaries. (Is that what that six-minute slab of bombastic brilliance is about? What a disappointment!) A record exec, Ray Foster (Mike Myers, a casting in-joke meant for fans), grumbles about the song’s radio-unfriendly length — “No one will play Queen,” he growls — but he’s fictional, a pretend villain. Even Queen's triumphant performance at the 1985 Live Aid concert, the climax of the film and perhaps their career, feels a bit dry: The details are right (the clothing, the set list) but the excitement isn’t there.

Blame must go to Singer (“X-Men”), who gets sole directing credit despite being replaced, under murky circumstances, by Dexter Fletcher. You can almost feel Mercury resisting this movie at every turn: He won't be the gay pioneer (he was never publicly “out”) or the AIDS activist (he kept his diagnosis secret for years) or even just your typical tortured artist (though he had his moments). What “Bohemian Rhapsody” can’t admit is that, on stage and on record, Mercury already told his story, exactly the way he wanted. That's all any Queen fan needs.

The rock biopic tends to be a formulaic affair, but every now and then one manages to break the mold. Here are four of the best:

Straight Outta Compton (2015) The rap group N.W.A. were gangsta-rap legends, but F. Gary Gray's film zooms in on what really made them dangerous: Their vocal protests against police harassment. O'Shea Jackson Jr., is superb as his dad, Ice Cube.

Walk the Line (2005). Joaquin Phoenix narrowly missed the Oscar for his portrayal of the troubled but brilliant Johnny Cash in this pitch-perfect drama. (Reese Witherspoon won, however, as June Carter.) James Mangold's film has since become the gold standard for rock biopics.

I'm Not There (2007) Bob Dylan gave his blessing to Todd Haynes' film about him, a brilliant, daring mix of fact and fantasy in which the musician is represented (if not exactly “played”) by six actors: Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and, best of all, Cate Blanchett.

Sid and Nancy (1986) Gary Oldman is Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and Chloe Webb is his heroin-addicted femme fatale, Nancy Spungen, in this furious slice of punk history from director Alex Cox. For sheer rock energy, rebellion and destructive power, this one's hard to beat.
— RAFER GUZMAN

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