Last week was a Queen-filled week. As in the rock group Queen, that is, not the grandmother of Wills and Harry. As a Queen tragic from way back yonder, that suited me very well, and I might have been heard singing along a bit. It started with a TV special, then things got serious.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie
Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic telling the tale of British rock group Queen, hit the screens and I was there for the first night preview. Ten years in the making and suffering all sorts of setbacks, the film had already hit the media well before it reached cinemas, with stories of disagreements over and changes in the direction of the script, and changes in the lead actor and director. There has been much discussion in the media and among critics, including some praise – particularly of lead actor’s Rami Malek’s convincing performance as Freddie – and some criticism, which seems to be par for the course for anything Queen with an inevitable bit of controversy.
To be clear, the film is not entirely accurate (a biopic is a film about well known people, not a documentary), so some licence has been taken with dates and sequencing and even characters for the purposes of narrative. There are a number of challenges of massaging the story of someone’s life (and even more so, four people’s lives – Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon) into the fairly formulaic structure of a biopic, so certain aspects have been massaged to fit into a narrative fit for screen-viewing.
No doubt Roger and Brian, the two remaining active members of Queen, had a strong say in the elements of the story they wanted emphasised. There has been criticism that the film glossed over some of the realities of band’s and Freddie’s lives – the drugs, the hedonistic lifestyle, particularly of Freddie, but it’s difficult to put much of an R-rated reality into a PG film, and innuendo played a role.
By concentrating on the early years of the band, we’re given an insight into its formation and how the four members worked together in the studio, creating and pushing musical boundaries, and clashing heads. In my opinion, it was these formative years which gave rise to some of their finest and most innovative music, the stuff that still colours my musical appreciation, years before the world had ever heard the oddity that was Bohemian Rhapsody and introduced them to the world.
Along the way, we discover more about the background and vulnerabilities of the deeply complex and creative Freddie, the focus of the film, even though the scrip can at times seem a little trite and some of the story simplified.
Even if you’re familiar with the story it’s fascinating to see it recreated on screen, with the actors providing the most uncanny likenesses of the characters they depict, both in looks and movements. It’s particularly interesting to watch the process of recording, and re-recording, and the use of the existing technology to overlay vocals and instrumentals to create the sounds now so familiar to us, and so quintessentially Queen. Four artists dedicated to creating the very best they could, over and over again, and pushing the boundaries – and each other’s buttons in the process. And there’s a rather interesting fact revealed about those teeth – one of the few things I didn’t already know.
But park your inner critic at the door and just go along for the ride, enjoy the music and relive the magic that was Queen, maybe learn some new things, and you’ll leave the theatre with a smile on your face. It’s actually a lot of fun.
The film actually finishes in 1985, with the virtual re-enactment of the Wembley performance at Live Aid (aghhh, the one I missed because I left London the week before!), seen by many as the pinacle of their live shows. It doesn’t dwell on the years to follow and Freddie’s demise from an AIDS related illness, no doubt a disappointment to some, perhaps those who like to dwell on morbid things, but allows the movie to finish on a high.
Strangely, almost the entire cinema cleared out before the final credits, If you see it, don’t do that – stay till the end otherwise you’ll miss out on some great original footage right at the end.
We Will Rock You – the musical
Then just as my Queen fanaticism was piqued, I got a last minute call with free tickets to the We Will Rock You musical (WWRY), showing in town for the first time ever for a few nights only. Having seen it three times already and not being entirely sure of the chosen large venue, I hadn’t planned on going, but free tickets AND Queen – who could say no? Turns out, it’s still a lot of fun, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before and each production brings something new.
WWRY is a light-hearted musical, set in the future when music is programmed and rock unknown and Bohemians roam around trying to discover the past. Written by Ben Elton, it’s very funny in parts, and weaves together a gala of Queen hits into a highly entertaining tale and a great night out. When it comes down to it, it’s just a bloody good excuse to reel out a parade of Queen hits in a theatrical setting, and it’s a hoot.
This particular show was very good, the leads vocally strong and engaging. Queenie Van der Zandt, hailing originally from Canberra, played the role of Killer Queen (I’m not making up all these Queens) and did an excellent job. I recognised one of the performers as one my daughter used to perform with years ago. Ah, such a small town for a bit city. If it’s showing near you, get along – you’re guaranteed to leave feeling lighter than when you arrived.
It’s surprising to recall that WWRY was completely panned by the critics when it first hit the stage in London in 2002,dismissed as juvenile and manufactured. But audiences loved it from the start, the ones singing, clapping and stomping along, and the musical played non-stop in the West End for12 years and played in six continents, defying the opinions of those original critics.
In fact, there’s a bit of a common thread here. The musical panned by critics but embraced by audiences, a film sometimes derided by reviewers but lapped up by movie goers, a band out of favour with the media and in many ways the mainstream music industry but who managed to fire up audiences, survive decades and become a part of the music history. Despite their ‘unpopularity’ at times and their differences, their longevity and re-incarnation to a new generation is testament to their talents and musical ingenuity.
Go to see the movie yourself or the musical, if you haven’t already, and make your own judgement. It mightn’t be exactly what you were expecting, but Queen never was. That’s what made them special.
Have you been? What did you think?