What ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ biopic could have learned from ‘Judy’

Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

20th Century Fox / 20th Century Fox

Since the movies began to sing they have loved the songs and stories of famous performers. Over the years, the “musical biopic” has become as common a cinematic staple as the romantic comedy and the horror movie. Hollywood loves the chance to sing and dance.

As “Judy” demonstrates, the biopic benefits from a precise point of view, a specific time period, and authentic vocals that suggest a performer’s magic.

This year’s Oscar winner, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” reminds us why we both love and loathe the musical biopic as a movie standard. The film’s efforts to examine the life and career of Freddie Mercury and his legendary rock band Queen can seem as realistic as the false teeth that adorn Best Actor Rami Malek. It’s no surprise that describing an R-rated life in a PG-13 movie may require a compromise here and there. But when the movie begins to sing, the power of Mercury’s presence and Queen’s impact are impossible to ignore, making the movie easier to enjoy than it may deserve to be.

Like most musical biopics, “Bohemian Rhapsody” spends its first act tracing the rise of a promising new talent, from the routine of his job throwing bags at Heathrow Airport to finding himself in the right place at the right time when an up-and-coming band needs a songwriter and lead singer. Within a few minutes on screen, Mercury stands in front of the band, in front of a crowd, and hoping to get in front of his life. But a sense of obligation to his traditional parents, as well as confusion about his identity, start Mercury’s struggle with himself just as his music begins to take off. As in many musical biopics, the lead character’s attempts to balance personal priorities and professional ambitions become difficult for this talented man to handle.

The best musical biopics feature strong performances that reach beyond the superficial stories and slick moviemaking. “Bohemian Rhapsody” benefits from Malek’s energetic presence on stage and his vulnerability in the quieter moments that fill some gaps in the narrative. The actor effectively captures the magic of Mercury on stage, even while lip-syncing the vocals, and tries to bring depth to Mercury’s efforts to confront his demons. Almost magically, Malek recreates the physical energy that Mercury brought to his performances, especially in the film’s thrilling finale.

But the film, like too many musical biopics, works better when it sings than when it talks. Malek’s efforts to create a multilayered characterization are undermined by the shallow treatment of the deep issues that defined Mercury’s life. Rather than detail the singer’s struggles, to help us better understand the man behind the music, the synthetic script seems more intent on creating transitions between songs. Still, thanks to Malek, we experience that sense of wonder Mercury could create on stage. If only the script had enabled us to get to know the man offstage as well.

Many were surprised when “Bohemian Rhapsody” landed in this year’s Best Picture race. But never underestimate the popularity of the musical biopic at the Oscars. Since movies began to sing, in fact, 13 of these films have been nominated for Best Picture. Because the Academy loves movies that tell the stories behind the songs.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” runs 2 hours, 14 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language.” It streams online.