Does Bohemian Rhapsody depict Freddie Mercury's real life? Or is it just fantasy?
Unfortunately, the bowdlerized biopic about operatic British rock band Queen and its flamboyant lead singer feels more like the latter than the former.
And not in a particularly exciting or outlandish way. The movie starring Rami Malek and his prosthetic teeth — Mercury was born with four extra incisors, which he believed aided his dynamic vocal range — has a potentially juicy, and tragic, rock-and-roll story to tell.
But Bohemian Rhapsody doesn't throw itself into the tale of the band with anything approaching the abandon of the boldly unconventional 1975 smash hit that gives the movie its name.
Instead, Bohemian Rhapsody plays it safe in a manner that's often cliched and always predictable — but not entirely unsatisfying.
In fact, considering the film's trouble finding its way to the screen — Sacha Baron Cohen was originally slated to play Mercury, and director Bryan Singer was fired last year before the movie was completed by Dexter Fletcher — it turns out to be more solidly entertaining than might be expected.
Much of that has to do with Malek, the Mr. Robot star who delivers an impressive, empathetic performance as the singer born Farrokh Bulsara who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991. He's not ideally cast: He's too slight of frame to fully convey the physicality of Mercury onstage, especially in his mustachioed muscle T-shirt period. At points it seems as if he wandered in from a Mick Jagger biopic.
But Malek does deliver a sincerity and soulfulness that holds the movie together as it moves through the bullet points of Queen's career.
Rebelling against a conservative London upbringing in a family that practices the Zoroastrian faith, young Farrokh contends with racists who call him "Paki" at his Heathrow Airport job and dreams of stardom while watching a band whose singer conveniently quits one fateful evening.
A record contract, a U.S. tour, and a meeting with a music exec too dense to understand the appeal of "Bohemian Rhapsody" all ensue. That fool is amusingly played by Mike Myers, whose Wayne's World did wonders for the Queen brand.
Mercury's relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), for whom he wrote "Love of My Life" on Queen's 1975 A Night at the Opera, is treated with great tenderness and care, both before and after she realizes her fiance is gay.
The rock star's homosexuality seems to make the PG-13 movie uncomfortable. Among the three band managers portrayed by excellent character actors Tom Hollander, Aiden Gillen, and Allen Leech, it's the latter (best known as Tom the chauffeur in Downton Abbey) who's the bad guy, and you can bet sweet Mary will show up in a driving rainstorm to save Freddie from his villainous clutches.
Sacha Baron Cohen told Howard Stern in 2016 that the band were wary of depicting Mercury as debauched: "There are stories of little people with plates of cocaine on their heads walking around a party." One party scene does plays like an homage to a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, but Cohen's assertion "they wanted to protect the legacy of the band" rings true.
What keeps Bohemian Rhapsody going is the crowd-pleasing music. It helps that the actors playing Mercury's bandmates resemble their real life counterparts, particularly big-haired guitarist-slash-astrophysicist Brian May, portrayed by Gwilym Lee.
The concert scenes are effectively staged, from Queen's rise from college boys playing the pub to their Wembley Stadium set at Live Aid, which unfortunately must include "Radio Gaga" for historical accuracy. That seen-by-millions triumph capped Queen's career and brings Bohemian Rhapsody to a crescendo that, like the movie itself, is heavy-handed and obvious, but not unenjoyable.