Freddie Mercury is still an enigma. So is Queen. There’s a danger to pigeonholing the band as either hard metal or popular crowd pleaser, to using Freddie as a poster boy for the gay ’80s or Brian as an emblem for the big-haired glam rockers of the late ’70s. Queen was always hard to pin down.
Hey hey hey hey it was the D.N.A.
Hey hey hey hey that made me this way
–“Sheer Heart Attack” by Queen
In the new biopic of the band, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rami Malek is terrific as Mercury, the spark of life and chaos that brings the lush guitar layers of the band’s musicianship to life. Gwilym Lee, Joe Mazzello, and Ben Hardy are lovely as Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor who create the sounds that now rank among the greatest rock songs–the greatest songs–of all time.
What Movie Were They Watching?
The critics have generally panned or dismissed the film. Rotten Tomatoes (a critical compilation) was barely 59% last week. Audience responses, in contrast, have been 94%. One of the greatest curiosities then, as we sat watching, tapping our feet, and singing along under our breath, was why?
The reality was perhaps more interesting, and more nuanced, but in any case the overall narrative architecture of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a Lego palace of clichés. A band strives to get to the top and tastes the sweet and sour sides of success. A misunderstood genius suffers for his art, alienates those who care for him most, and finds forgiveness and redemption. A lot of the story may be true, but none of it feels remotely authentic.–Review from A.O. Scott at The New York Times
A big part of the reason for the negativity is that the film fiddles with Queen and Mercury’s timeline, for dramatic effect. Mercury did not know he had AIDS in 1985 when they performed at Live Aid, the performance that a 2007 BBC poll ranked as the greatest rock performance of all time. One of Freddie’s sustained notes during his a cappella section became known as “The Note Heard Round the World.” Because that performance–in retrospect–looms large in the annals of rockdom and for the history of Queen itself, it would make sense to create it as a climax for their story. Hence, it’s the beginning and end of the movie, hence that glosses over the fact that Freddie lived another six years and that Queen continued to release albums during that time.
Ok, so be forewarned about that lack of historic “accuracy.”
Another knock by the critics is that supposedly the film “sanitizes” Mercury’s homosexuality. Some don’t seem to like that Mercury’s bisexuality–as represented by his long-term relationship with Mary Austin–is over-emphasized. Others that it was under-emphasized. In real life, Austin dated Brian May before Mercury, and Mercury was involved in the gay bar scene of the early ’80s, which is depicted in the movie. Mercury also dated Austrian actress Barbara Valentin and ended in a long-term relationship with Jim Hutton who nursed him through his final illness. As with many aspects of LGBT culture, no matter how it’s portrayed, someone always seems to want it to be something else.
You suck my blood like a leech
You break the law and you preach
Screw my brain till it hurts
You’ve taken all my money
And you want more
–“Death on Two Legs,” by Queen
Many of the critical comparisons are to the other musical story out at the moment, A Star Is Born. It’s a curious comparison, though, since that movie’s not a biography and the fourth version of a well-known story. The only similarity, other than that there’s music in both, is that Lady Gaga–like Mercury–is a flamboyant entertainer who is both outspoken and shy and sings pop vocals but with a voice that, when sung live, could dissolve your hair, in a good way.
Experimental From Day One
Which is the real curiosity about Queen and what makes them so hard to categorize and pin down. As an experimental band from day one, no one ever seems to know what to make of them. Using opera techniques? Six minute songs? Albums that move from face-melting guitar riffs to lyrical piano ballads to songs about loving your car… what is this stuff?
You say Rolls I say Royce
You say God give me a choice
You say Lord I say Christ
I don’t believe in Peter Pan
Frankenstein or Superman
All I wanna do isBicycle bicycle bicycle
–“Bicycle Races” by Queen
Just when rock’n’roll evaluators thought they had them slotted next to Kiss or Yes, Queen switched out of the metal over into rockabilly, with Crazy Little Thing Called Love… just when they rolled around into the jazz and blues of the bass line in Another One Bits the Dust, they would follow with a pop song like Radio Ga-Ga.
Fun Facts about Queen
Here are a few other interesting tidbits about Queen. The music video of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (link above) was the first of its kind, not created as a performance to show in a Dick Clark-like venue, but to tell a kind of story. Rolling Stone noted it “invented the music video seven years before MTV went on the air.”
Freddie Mercury was a baritone, but could sing tenor or higher–in the movie, he claims that extra incisors expands his range. Scientific analysis suggested he could employ subharmonics and use unusual frequencies, a rarity for singers except for Tuvan throat singers.
John Reid, the band’s manager depicted in the movie by shady Aidan Gillen (aka Littlefinger), was also Elton John’s manager. In fact, Reid was Elton John’s lover for over twenty years and bilked him financially to the point where John took him to court and won a sizable settlement.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” has been voted as the greatest rock song of all time in several polls, beating out “Hey Jude” and “Stairway to Heaven.” “We Are the Champions” as also been voted the greatest song of all time, despite never hitting #1 on the charts.
In 2011, a team of scientific researchers concluded that [We Are the Champions] was the catchiest song in the history of pop music… “Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology; from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesisers which can add effects to make a song more catchier. … there’s a science behind the sing-along …” –Daniel Mullensiefen quoted in The Daily Mail
Of course their songs were reliant on maths and science, because Brian May, as I’ve noted in another blog, has a Ph.D. in astrophysics. He now spends his time between lectures on science and performing in places like the London Olympics.
My spouse and I both loved A Night at the Opera, which came out when we were in high school. It’s the last album that we both bought separately. I remember her pointing out that the wind chimes during “sends shivers down my spine” only came out of one stereo speaker.
I own the piano music and “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a notorious challenge to play–three key signature changes, two time signature shifts, tons of chromatic shifts, triplets, crashing chords for the “Galileo! Bismillah!” part–I’ve been working on it for forty years. It’s still a work in progress.
There’s no time for us.
There’s no place for us.
What is this thing that builds our dreams, yet slips away from us?
Who wants to live forever?
–“Who Wants to Live Forever” by Queen
Like it or not, critical acclaim or not, Queen does live forever.