‘BO­HEMIAN RHAP­SODY’ WON’T ROCK YOU, BUT MALEK WILL

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Where does a preen­ing, pan­sex­ual rock god get his pow­ers? The Fred­die Mer­cury biopic “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” traces his sonorous majesty to an un­likely place: his back teeth.

Mer­cury, nee Far­rokh Bul­sara, was born with four ex­tra in­cisors, giv­ing him a big­ger mouth. In­tro­duc­ing him­self to his fu­ture Queen band­mates Mer­cury, as played by Rami Malek, ex­plains that the added chom­pers have ben­e­fits be­yond a provoca­tive, pro­nounced over­bite. It en­dows him with en­hanced vo­cal range.

Teeth-as­sisted or not, Mer­cury’s voice was so ex­pan­sive that it prompted gen­uine sci­en­tific in­quiry. But range is one thing sorely lack­ing in Bryan Singer’s “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody,” a slav­ishly con­ven­tional rock biopic that at ev­ery turn opts for the stereo­typ­i­cal de­spite a sub­ject who de­voted him­self to the un­con­ven­tional. It’s a re­mark­ably bland movie about a de­li­ciously vi­brant per­former.

Yet while “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” is so hol­lowly, even com­i­cally for­mu­laic that even Dewey Cox of “Walk Hard” might snicker, it’s filled, of­ten fan­tas­ti­cally, by Malek’s sin­u­ous, fully in­hab­ited per­for­mance as the Queen front­man. It’s as if he didn’t get the note about the half-hearted film­mak­ing go­ing on around him, or if he did, he’s hell-bent on ig­nor­ing it.

Malek, the “Mr. Ro­bot” ac­tor, throws him­self into ev­ery strut­ting sec­ond of screen time as Mer­cury. He lacks both Mer­cury’s voice (it was over­dubbed for singing and per­for­mance scenes) and Mer­cury’s teeth (Malek was out­fit­ted with fake ones). But Malek’s per­for­mance, es­pe­cially on stage, is so full-bod­ied that he tran­scends both his own dif­fer­ences with Mer­cury and the tepid sur­round­ing melo­drama.

That “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” is a bit of a mess isn’t al­to­gether a sur­prise. Singer was fired to­ward the end of shoot­ing for not show­ing up on set (Singer said it was to visit an ill par­ent) and was re­placed by Dex­ter Fletcher. Singer re­mains the cred­ited di­rec­tor; Fletcher is listed as a pro­ducer.

The script, too, un­der­went sev­eral passes be­fore one by An­thony McCarten (“Darkest Hour, “The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing”) ul­ti­mately pre­vailed. The film opens mo­ments be­fore Queen’s Live Aid per­for­mance at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium in 1985, and — as if by rock biopic de­cree — shifts back in time to young Fred­die, in his mid-20s and liv­ing with his par­ents in the Lon­don sub­urbs.

Mer­cury was born to a Parsi fam­ily from Zanz­ibar (he at­tended board­ing school in In­dia), but we get only the slight­est of hints of his fam­ily her­itage or what made Mer­cury run from it. By the time we meet him, he hasn’t yet adopted his

Ro­man god moniker (more than a stage name, he made “Mer­cury” le­gal), but he might as well have. Young Fred­die is al­ready a larger-thanlife fig­ure clearly des­tined to a life of skin-tight jump­suits and glam-rock an­thems. In a flash he goes from sling­ing lug­gage on the Heathrow tar­mac to con­vinc­ing gui­tarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drum­mer Roger Tay­lor (Ben Hardy) that he’s their new lead singer.

Ev­ery­thing in “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” hap­pens less with the thrust of life than the rapid-fire re­count­ing of a bi­o­graph­i­cal his­tory, some­times rig­or­ously in step with Wikipedia, some­times tak­ing short­cuts to avoid any­thing that strays out­side a neatly con­trived nar­ra­tive. In the span of min­utes, Queen is a sen­sa­tion with a record con­tract (Mike Mey­ers joins for a tongue-incheek cameo as EMI ex­ec­u­tive Ray Foster) and aspi­ra­tions for much more: a world tour, a farout con­cept al­bum and be­yond. Our sense is that Mer­cury has swiftly — and with cu­ri­ously lit­tle trou­ble — re­al­ized his true self, in all his pea­cock­ing glory.

The con­flict, hinted at in pass­ing glances in be­tween record­ing ses­sions, is that Mer­cury, who died of AIDS-re­lated pneu­mo­nia in 1991 at 45, isn’t quite so free off stage as he is on, de­spite all his rad­i­cal flam­boy­ance. Much time is spent with his long­time part­ner Mary Austin (Lucy Boy­ton) and, later, with a di­a­bol­i­cal per­sonal man­ager-boyfriend, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who gets most of the blame for any­thing bad Mer­cury ever did.

But the film mostly sticks to the fa­mil­iar tra­jec­tory of rock star­dom: stu­dio magic, backstage ex­cess, band in­fight­ing, mis­guided

solo ef­forts, drug prob­lems and — that most heinous of men­aces in the mu­sic biopic — the temp­ta­tion of disco.

The only time “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” works is when it fi­nally re­treats from not just the stan­dard biopic nar­ra­tive but from sto­ry­telling al­to­gether. It con­cludes with a nearly song-by-song re­cre­ation of the band’s re­union show at Live Aid which, de­spite the movie’s fudged time­line, took place two years be­fore Mer­cury’s AIDS di­ag­no­sis. Still, the power comes mainly from the tunes and from Mer­cury/Malek’s mag­nif­i­cent stage pres­ence. “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” might be easy come, easy go, but Malek makes for a show­stop­ping sil­hou­etto of a man.

“Bo­hemian Rhap­sody,” a 20th Cen­tury Fox re­lease, is rated PG-13 by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica for the­matic el­e­ments, sug­ges­tive ma­te­rial, drug con­tent and lan­guage. Run­ning time: 134 min­utes. Two stars out of four.

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