That’s because we all arrived at the multiplex fluent in the motion of Mercury’s ocean, the dip in his hip, the flutter in his butter — and we can see that what Malek is doing on screen isn’t exactly that. Same goes for the rock-dude postures of Gwilym Lee playing Queen guitarist Brian May, Joe Mazzello as bassist John Deacon and Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor. For the movie’s big finish, all four actors are pantomiming rock-and-roll when they should be tricking us into believing that they’re actually making some.
Most musical biopics threaten to derail themselves for a more obvious reason: even the greatest, coolest, most beautiful actors will never be as great, cool or beautiful as the demigods they’re aiming to portray. But as dedicated moviegoers, we’ve been trained to quietly munch our Junior Mints, suspend our disbelief and let the miracle of cinema come pouring into our sensorium. When an actor tries to ace a beloved musician’s voice, affectation or general aura, we’re eager to buy in.
But what about acting out the music itself? That’s so much harder to pull off. Take all the piano lessons you want, but if you haven’t made big noises for big audiences for hundreds of nights of your life, it’ll show. Moving your body to a sound is so much different than using your body to generate one.
And that’s why the Jenga blocks start to wobble in the middle of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” when Queen begins to tour the American highways in a montage sequence of re-created concerts. Yes, Malek has all of Mercury’s clothes, a few of Mercury’s dance steps and 130 percent of Mercury’s overbite. What he doesn’t have is Mercury’s limbs, Mercury’s ligaments, Mercury’s muscle memory or Mercury’s neurons telling Mercury’s brain what Mercury’s ears are hearing and how it might inform where Mercury’s tush should go next.
I’d argue that this unsolvable little problem proves fatal in every musical biopic ever made — the good ones, the lousy ones, even the ones I haven’t seen. In “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Angela Bassett stops being Tina Turner the moment her character steps on a stage. Never mind his valiant singing — as soon as Joaquin Phoenix strums a guitar in “Walk the Line,” he’s no longer Johnny Cash. Sam Riley can only try to replicate the electro-shocked stage presence of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in “Control.” And while the cast of “Straight Outta Compton” barely passed for the wildly charismatic N.W.A., the movie’s pivotal concert scene lands somewhere between a weird Halloween party and a parody sketch with no jokes.
So how about casting actual musicians for these roles? Surely, a real pop star has the body-knowledge required to get the job done. Nice idea, but so far, the results have been mixed. In 2013, “Jimi: All Is by My Side” found Andre 3000, (probably the greatest rapper of his time), playing Jimi Hendrix, (probably the greatest guitarist of his time) — but asking one iconic stage performer to transform into another iconic stage performer requires the audience to forget too much of what they know about both.
As for the miracles that Jamie Foxx worked in “Ray,” let’s not forget that he also had the advantage of playing a singer who didn’t ascend to superstardom on camera. What if we had first met a young Ray Charles on MTV? Would we feel the same about Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance? Instead of mystically gobsmacked, we might only be profoundly amazed.
Malek isn’t all that impressive in his execution of Mercury, but he is insanely brave for accepting the job — something he appears to have done in good faith. Good for him, good for us. How would humanity progress without these gusto-havers signing up for the impossible? That said, if Malek actually wins the Oscar for actor in a leading role at Sunday night’s Academy Awards, it’ll be a bummer, just as “Bohemian Rhapsody” winning best picture would be a farce. Courage isn’t greatness, and neither is fun.
Then again, on the flip side, greatness can be fun. Ever hear a Queen song? That’s the wider, more permeative side effect of this movie’s askew performance scenes. Queen’s music takes itself seriously and unseriously in all the right places. “Bohemian Rhapsody” almost does the complete inverse.
Why close out such a lighthearted movie by reshaping such a feel-great concert into such a serious Hollywood climax? And really, why bother meticulously reenacting such a widely seen concert performance in the first place? Does being dunked into a CGI version of Wembley make anyone feel closer to the experience than watching footage of the real thing on YouTube? More importantly, why do we seem to need every mass-culture moment rewrapped in celluloid to make it feel valid?
And after all that talk about dentition and glutes, what’s up with those eyeballs? Why, amid all their dealbreaking body language, do these four actors keep gazing out into the crowd with their dewy eyes widening in awe, as if they can’t believe how well this whole thing is going? We’ve seen the tapes. Everyone in Queen knew exactly how good they were that day. Onstage, the band amazed the world. On screen, the band amazes itself.
If you prefer Queen in the former mode, you only have to wait a few minutes for the credits to roll. Then, as a list of names effervesce to heaven, the 1978 music video for “Don’t Stop Me Now” unfolds on the left side of the screen. It looks like a dress rehearsal for an arena show. Taylor and Deacon are locked in, all business. May stands in perfect contrapposto, the vision of a rock guitarist in all his glory.
As for Mercury, this was how he used his mouth, shook his hips, pumped his fists, moved his everything. You’re watching it up on a movie screen, but you’re experiencing music doing things only music can do.