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Bohemian Rhapsody is entertaining, but pedestrian

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The debate over what constitutes entertainment and what comprises art is often pointless. After all, great entertainment requires artistry on at least some level. Still, Bohemian Rhapsody, more than most movies this year, has revived that debate thanks to its status as solid entertainment but pedestrian drama.

The Freddie Mercury biopic begins in 1970 when the superstar singer-songwriter meets bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor in London. (That’s not quite how it happened, but more on the film’s fudges later.) Events proceed quickly and predictably from bassist John Deacon’s joining the band, to mild chart success, to concert tours, to world stardom, to the inevitable in-fighting. And it’s all bookended by an astonishing re-creation of the 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium, which alone might be worth the admission price. But remove the music (which is mostly the real Queen, with contributions from Mercury mimic Marc Martel), and you have a paint-(or sing)-by-the numbers production with surprisingly uninspired writing by Anthony McCarten. (He was probably due a dip after The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour.)

The film has one of the most complicated production histories this side of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Announced eight years ago with the blessing of the surviving band members, the movie went through developmental thunderbolts and lightning, with Sacha Baron Cohen first attached as Mercury. Rami Malek (Night at the Museum, Mr. Robot) was eventually chosen, and though Cohen would have been an interesting watch, Malek successfully captures Mercury’s look and charisma. He gives one of the most fun performances of the year while also exposing Mercury’s demons. Though it sometimes resembles an impersonation more than a fully realized characterization, it should be enough to win him the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical over Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born).

Rhapsody is peppered with other interesting actors, though the film’s structure never allows anyone but Malek to shine. Noteworthy are Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin (Mercury’s girlfriend), Tom Hollander as Jim Beach (a Queen manager) and Mike Myers as a fictional record executive – though the latter is a tad distracting. But the supporting standouts are Gwilym Lee as May (talk about a doppelganger!) and Allen Leech (Tom Branson in Downton Abbey) as Paul Prenter (Mercury’s manipulative personal manager), with whom he also shared a romance.

That romance is diminished in the film, and Prenter is transformed into a scapegoat for Mercury’s drug problems and career mistakes. And there lies part of Rhapsody’s problem: revisionism. Sure, this isn’t a documentary, and, admittedly, some of the changes are designed to tighten the narrative and provide thematic direction. But many of the distortions simply don’t ring true, most notably Myer’s metatheatricality (his character hates “Bohemian Rhapsody” – get it?) and the insinuation that Mercury was already extremely ill with AIDS when he performed at Live Aid and viewed the performance as a temporary “screw you” to the disease that would take his life six years later. (The latter claim is dubious at best.) And while his bisexuality is front and center for the second half of the film, one can’t shake the feeling that Mercury’s personal and familial relationships are mishandled and deemphasized.

Still, under the direction of Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns) – or perhaps in spite of it, as he was replaced by Dexter Fletcher two-thirds of the way into shooting – the film succeeds thanks to an eye-catching lead performance, wonderful music, and the right mix of pathos and comedy. And if it sounds like I just endorsed a movie I spent most of this review criticizing, well, call me mercurial.

Stripped of its powerhouse musical numbers, the film is the cinematic equivalent of a rudimentarily assembled greatest-hits compilation when we instead needed a collection of deep album cuts. Nevertheless, Rhapsody will rock you.