Bohemian Rhapsody, the long-awaited Queen biopic starring Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as Freddie Mercury, has been fraught with drama from day one. Sasha Baron Cohen was initially slated to play Mercury, but he abandoned the project after creative differences with the producing team, which includes original band members Roger Taylor and Brian May. Ben Whishaw (James Bond's new "Q") was then tapped to play Mercury, but he bounced as well. Malek was finally enlisted, and filming began last year. The discord wasn't over, though. Director Bryan Singer was fired late in the production process, having clashed repeatedly with Malek, and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle), who carried it home.
The central creative dilemma seems to have always been: Should the film essentially be a puff piece, a glossy musical tribute flick featuring all the band's hits, (the band's preference, presumably)? Or should it be a gritty biopic, #Oscarbait, one that delves deeply into Mercury's personal life (the actors' preference)?
The resulting product, which opens in wide release Friday, often feels like an uncertain blend of these divergent aims. Despite some narrative bumpiness, though, music lovers will surely appreciate the movie and the infectious tunes throughout. It races through a 2-hour and 20-minute runtime to include as many songs as possible — often with goofy, and presumably fictitious, origin stories, as when the hit single "Another One Bites the Dust" is more or less improvised from its famous riff by bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazello, who still resembles little Tim from Jurassic Park) after a manager is canned. Get it? — plus Queen's full 20-minute Live Aid set from 1985, considered by music history geeks to be one of the greatest performances of all-time.
As Mercury, Malek is a lithe and capable copycat, at least on stage. He struts and wriggles and winks like the legend. He even sings like him, at least occasionally. The vocals for the film are a composite of Mercury himself, Malek and Canadian singer Marc Martel. As Freddie offstage, born Farrokh Bulsara, Malek seems sometimes overly concerned with mannerisms. He's one step shy of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote. Mercury's extra incisors gave him a dramatic overbite, and Malek is forever adjusting his upper lip, as if bothered by a mouthguard. A brief interlude during which Mercury pursues a solo career, manipulated by manager-slash-lover Paul Prenter (Downton Abbey's Allen Leech) feels mostly disposable.
Once you surrender yourself to the cornier puff-piece aspects of the film, you may enjoy it more. I, for one, found myself moved by the sympathetic portrait of Queen as a ragtag band of overeducated misfits, playing music for other weirdos and outcasts just like them. There are gooey band-as-family moments, as when Mercury reveals his AIDS diagnosis (in an apocryphal scene). But overall, it's successful feel-good nostalgia.