The first time I saw firsthand how much rock ’n’ roll can scare people in authority was when I was in junior-high school, and Queen’s “We Will Rock You / We Are the Champions” became a staple of every school pep rally. We would act out the stomp-stomp-clap in the bleachers, and the school counselors would become terrified that we would bring the whole gym down around us.
Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a little of that sense of danger, that reckless abandon in service to the beat, anywhere during the 135 minutes of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a depressingly by-the-numbers biographical drama of Queen and its too-big-for-words lead singer, Freddie Mercury.
There is a bright side, though, and it’s Rami Malek’s transformative portrayal of Mercury. Not only does Malek re-create the strutting peacock stage moves, but he captures the yearning artist that managed and hid behind that persona.
The film — directed by Bryan Singer (“X-Men”) until the studio fired him for his on-set behavior and brought in Dexter Fletcher to mop up the mess — starts with Freddie, birth name Farrokh Bulsara, rebelling against his tradition-bound Parsi Indian parents to fulfill his musical dreams. When he sees his favorite band, Smile, has lost its lead singer, he tells guitarist Bryan May (Gwylim Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) that he’d like to audition.
Soon, Mercury, May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello — yes, the kid from “Jurassic Park”) are drawing audiences, selling albums and consternating record executives with their demands to make something bigger and better than before. That turns out to be “A Night at the Opera,” which produced the band’s extravagant six-minute masterpiece “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The song draws the wrath of EMI’s head honcho Ray Foster, who loudly declares that no teen will ever bang his head in the car to that song — a line no doubt written solely because Mike Myers, who plays Foster and famously revived “Bohemian Rhapsody” to head-banging delight in “Wayne’s World,” could utter it.
The script — by Anthony McCarten (who also penned the recent biopics “Darkest Hour” and “The Theory of Everything”), who shares story credit with Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) — sets up other Queen hits with similar head-smacking inevitability. One moment, Mercury and Taylor are nearly coming to blows, only to be saved by Deacon’s cool bass riff, which of course sets up the single “Another One Bites the Dust.”
The movie treads lightly around Mercury’s private life, centering largely on his devotion to girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) in the 1970s. They shared a house, and were for a time engaged, but that ended when with Mercury’s growing realization that he was gay — which is handled so gingerly you might almost think the movie skipped over it.
When the movie puts Mercury on the stage, there’s a bit of magic. This is particularly apparent in the finale, a note-perfect re-creation of Queen’s spellbinding 1985 set at the Live Aid benefit concert at Wembley Stadium. In those moments, “Bohemian Rhapsody” finds the spark that its dry recitation of the band’s history is lacking.
Opens Friday, November 2, at theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language. Running time: 135 minutes.