Queen, Ally and the Alchemy of Musical Stardom on the Big Screen

In “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rami Malek (with Gwilym Lee, left, and Joe Mazzello) misses Freddie Mercury’s eternal self-delight.

I was waiting for a subway last month in Mexico City when I figured out what’s wrong with the Queen movie. I mean, I knew what was wrong. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is scared of tapping into the imagination that made the band so innovative and powerfully, addictively strange. But that’s not what hit me waiting for the subway.

The platform entertainment system was playing a concert video of “Another One Bites the Dust.” I don’t know what year the clip was from or what city Queen was in. I just know that the lighting is warm, the groove is skintight (you could feel it on the platform), and that Freddie Mercury is wearing — is packed into — white short-shorts and almost nothing else. No shoes, no shirt yet all service. The towel he’s whipping around gets an almost immediate, theatrical toss into the crowd. The red wristband and red bandanna tied round his neck bring out the red in his Montreal Canadiens trucker’s cap.

Mercury does all his Mercurial moves — the side gallop, the chug-a-lug, the duck strut, the steed swipe, the rewind, the vroom-vroom, the Wimbledon Final frozen pirouette, the one where he kind of dries his tushy with the microphone stand in a full march. And he does them while belting out this uppercut of a song (with some shockingly forceful assistance from the drummer Roger Taylor). Commuters, tourists, kids: we looked up at this thing, mesmerized, in jeopardy of missing a train. That’s right about when I figured out what was wrong with the Queen movie: There’s nothing in it remotely like this.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” plods, explains, obscures, speculates and flattens. It does not mesmerize. I mean, I wouldn’t miss a train for this. We learn how “We Will Rock You” allegedly sprang from a fit of personal protestation. But it’s news we can’t use. The movie won’t stop telling us things — about the music business and the songs, about Mercury’s tortured sex life. And it fails to show you anything close to what that clip on the subway platforms makes you feel: sweaty.

The musical biography has an impossibly high degree of alchemical difficulty. One performer has to become a totally different performer, and not any performer, just this one star the whole world knows, and it has to be done in a way that makes you believe you’re seeing either the impersonated star or something quintessential about them. Val Kilmer made you believe you were seeing something vitally true about Jim Morrison. Joaquin Phoenix did the same with Johnny Cash. And Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles. Angela Bassett convinced you that if you were seeing if not Tina Turner, then Turner’s indestructibility; and Marion Cotillard, the brittle incandescence of Edith Piaf.

For my money, one of the triumphs of this type of acting is Chadwick Boseman’s James Brown in “Get On Up.” Boseman pumps Brown full of edginess and spite while having to reconstruct Brown as a stage specimen, and part of that reconstruction involves learning to lip sync to Brown. You sense that you’re watching an actor who’s done more than homework. He’s written himself a little dissertation. It’s not an impression of Brown. It’s an interpolation.

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The director Tate Taylor narrates a sequence from “Get On Up,” featuring Chadwick Boseman.CreditCredit...Universal Pictures

Some movies pivot and omit the musical performance altogether. That’s the approach Todd Haynes applied to Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There” and John Ridley took in having Andre 3000 play Jimi Hendrix in “Jimi: All Is by My Side.” But the alchemy is a reason to dislike the genre. It’s hard to get the proportions right. It takes some work in, say, “Cadillac Records” to figure out where Beyoncé ends and Etta James is supposed to begin.

Rami Malek has a different challenge in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He’s not a superstar playing another superstar. He just has to become the superstar Freddie Mercury was. Just. And yet because the movie is mostly scenes of recording sessions, squabbling and self-pity, Mercury’s stardom is made beside the point — it’s assumed — so Malek gets to play a charismatic sufferer, -quipster and, eventually, proud brown gay man. It’s just that this version of Mercury isn’t terribly exciting without the reward of seeing him vroom-vroom in short-shorts. The movie rides the roller coaster of biographical cliché. What’s missing are musical numbers that showcase his showmanship and eternal capacity for self-delight.

This means more time watching Malek struggle with dental effects meant to bring his mouth into more realistic alignment with Mercury’s. Maybe Malek has done the best anyone could with the teeth. But they wind up bringing something vampiric out of Mercury that I don’t know was ever there. Either way, the alchemy is off.

WE’RE IN A HAPPY MOMENT for musical-movie excitement. “Mary Poppins” has returned with new songs. And despite that lie of a title, “The Greatest Showman” is the most impressive phenomenon nobody saw coming or took seriously once it came. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is now the musical biopic’s biggest hit. We can have the argument later about the difference between a classical movie musical and a movie where people get on stage and do music, but you could also add to the mix this latest incarnation of “A Star Is Born,” which was a smash too.

It’s the story of how a waitress became a Grammy winner. And because the tale is essentially a fantasy — of love, fame and ruin; biography as mythology — its casting is the inverse of the rock bio. A musician does the acting. In Bradley Cooper’s version, the musician is Lady Gaga. She starts off as Ally the restaurant grunt. But when Cooper’s beloved alt-country pill guzzler sees her belt “La Vie en Rose” in a drag parlor, he hauls her into stardom, which Gaga knows well.

But the surprise of her acting comes in the first hour when the movie is closer to earth and requires her to be more like you and me — daughter, employee, listener. There’s a lovely hesitance to her here, not in the camera-shy way singers tend to get when it’s time to act. Reluctance is a performance strategy for her in this movie. Again, she’s like you and me, she can’t believe Bradley Cooper’s happening to her, either. Some of what’s great about the first hour is how it gets you thinking about the kind of career Gaga could have in movies they haven’t made in, like, 30 years.

The scenes at home with Ally, her chauffeur father and his fellow drivers are loud, funny and warm in a way that reminded me of “Moonstruck.” And some of the pleasure I had watching Gaga in them is how she reminded me of another singer who acts: Cher. A friend points out that she could have Cher’s career if the movies were still interested in normal people. I, at least, would love to see Gaga in a “Mask” or a “Suspect.”

She and Malek are both near the top of the heap for Oscar nominations. And she’s got an alchemical advantage over Malek’s Freddie Mercury. When Ally’s career takes off, Gaga winds up playing a pop star not unlike herself. And you realize she has the opposite problem that Malek does. You’re less interested in her as a singer — but only because we’ve seen her do huge, stadium-size razzle-dazzle before. And yet she’s indifferent to playing the fame stuff. It doesn’t seem to interest Ally or Gaga. If the movie loses Ally a bit in the second half, Gaga never appears lost. She’s giving a serious, considered, committed performance of a person she seems to know. Malek’s commitment is to a movie committed in the wrong proportions. It doesn’t know who it wants Freddie Mercury to be.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t fixate on the showmanship until the finale, which restages their electric, legendary Live-Aid performance at Wembly Stadium and passes for showstopping. Yet you exit hungry for a movie that gets closer to the bottom of a man who renamed himself after both an element and a planet. If someone dares take another crack (and someone really should), I know the perfect Freddie. Her first name is Lady. And her last name comes straight from a Queen song.

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