By Gillian G. Gaar
After years in the making, Bohemian Rhapsody, a feature film about Queen that focuses on the band’s charismatic lead singer/pianist Freddie Mercury, opened in the U.S. in early November. The film was first announced in 2010, with comedian Sacha Baron Cohen set to play the lead; he ended up leaving over “creative differences.” British actor Ben Whishaw was chosen to replace him, but he later bowed out, with Rami Malek (of the Mr. Robot TV series) ultimately cast as Mercury.
It was similarly turbulent on the directorial side. Dexter Fletcher was initially hired for the job, but ended up leaving due to conflicts with producer Graham King. Bryan Singer was then taken on, only to end up being fired during the filming for his absences from the set (Singer claimed one of his parents was ill). Fletcher was then rehired, though Singer will retain the on-screen director’s credit.
The film ends with the band’s triumphant appearance at Live Aid in 1985, meaning it will avoid having to deal with much of the post-1985 years, leading up to Mercury’s death of AIDS-related causes on November 24, 1991. It marks the first time the band’s story has been dramatized on film. Bohemian Rhapsody’s release is accompanied by a soundtrack, which will include previously unreleased material (the vinyl format release is due out in February). The book Queen in 3-D, by the band’s guitarist, Brian May, was reissued on October 23, featuring new images May took during the making of the new movie.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of memorable performances the band has made over the years, on both the big (and small) screen, to look back on. Here’s a few selections:
“Keep Yourself Alive”/“Liar”
Queen’s first promo films, shot in August 1973, were rejected for not being properly lit. Two months later, the band reconvened in a London studio to shoot new videos for “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Liar,” from their debut album. They’re both assured performances, with hints of things to come. Mercury’s antics don’t completely dominate (he doesn’t prowl the stage as much as he would in future years), but he exudes an undeniable confidence. He’s also already using his trademark prop; the sawn-off mic stand he’d use to such good effect on stage. The idea came to him after a mishap during a show, when the bottom of the mic stand he was using fell off. He then realized the visual potential wielding a short mic stand would give him, and made it part of the act. As he explained to a friend, “It’s my gimmick, dear. You must have a gimmick.” Bonus trivia: close-ups reveal guitarist May playing his instrument using a sixpence coin instead of a guitar pick, as was his preference.
“Seven Seas of Rhye”
(February 19, 1974)
When the promo film for David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” wasn’t ready for broadcast on the U.K. TV music series Top of the Pops, Queen was tapped to appear. Mercury dismissed the show as “rubbish,” but the band’s other members managed to convince him otherwise, and he certainly doesn’t hold back in this appearance. Attired in black satin, Mercury is dramatic and compelling, staring down the camera in every close-up. The clip aired two days later, and helped the single reach No. 10 in the U.K. charts; the band’s first hit. Bonus trivia: though the track includes a piano part, no one is seen miming on the instrument.
If “Seven Seas of Rhye” made Queen a hit act, it was “Killer Queen” that made them stars. In another Top of the Pops appearance, the camera is placed below Mercury as the song begins, letting him gaze down on his audience with imperial cool. It’s a master class on how to make the most of a limited space; the band’s crammed together on a small stage, but Mercury makes every gesture—every flick of his left hand (the hand with the black nail polish)—count. The single eventually peaked at No. 2 in the U.K., and gave the band their first chart hit in the U.S., where it peaked at No. 12.
Live at the Rainbow ’74
(November 19-20, 1974)
On November 19 and 20, 1973, Queen was opening for Mott the Hoople in Wolverhampton and Oxford, respectively. One year later, in the wake of two Top 10 hits, Queen were now the headliners, and these shows, at London’s Rainbow Theatre, marked the first time a Queen concert was professionally filmed. Mercury is in a particularly chatty mood, opening the show with a flourish (“The nasty Queenies are back! What do you think of that?”), and gently chiding the crowd for their premature requests (“You seem to know the show better than we do! ‘Liar’ doesn’t come right now”). Theatrical touches are evident in Zandra Rhodes-designed satin tunics worn by Mercury and May, featuring flared arms that made them look like wings. The shows were initially edited down to 30 minutes for theatrical release a year later; seek out the complete set, released on DVD/Blu-ray in 2014.
(November 20, 1975)
Queen didn’t invent promo films any more than The Beatles did. But, like the Fab Four did with the promo films for “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields,” Queen took them to a new level with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Though it’s one of the band’s most complex recordings, the promo film (soon to be called a “video”) is remarkably straight-forward, with the band recreating the cover shot of the Queen II album in some sequences (with some special visual effects added during the operatic interlude), intercut with footage of them performing the song on their instruments (accompanied by swirls of dry ice during the song’s full-blown rock section). It’s a simple set up—but one that proved to be devastatingly effective.
A Night at the Odeon
(December 24, 1975)
With both “Bohemian Rhapsody” and A Night at the Opera heading up the charts, Queen had much to celebrate as 1975 came to an end. As a special holiday treat for the fans, they gave a Christmas Eve show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. There are some similarities with the Rainbow ’74 set, but also some key differences. Like that new hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” of course, presented here as part of a medley. And “Brighton Rock,” May’s guitar showcase (and yes, you do hear “Three Blind Mice” during his solo). Not to mention the over-the-top finale, where Mercury comes on stage, bubbles falling gently around him, throwing off a kimono to reveal he’s wearing white shorts and a bowling shirt, then swaggering his way through “Big Spender.” Those were the days.
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love”
Mercury butches it up in Queen’s first choreographed video. Gone are the satin tunics and leotards; Mercury’s swapped them for black leather and a white t-shirt (later artfully ripped open by one of the female dancers). The rest of the band is similarly attired, with Mercury, bassist John Deacon, and drummer Roger Taylor sporting shorter locks as well (May chooses to keep his curly hair long); a stripped-down look for the new decade. Mercury’s the only one called on to execute any dance steps, which he handles with his usual panache.
Flash! Ah-ahhh! Savior of the universe! Queen’s pomp and circumstance was a perfect fit for this campy, kitschy cult classic. The band’s 1970s “no synthesizers” policy was abandoned in the new decade, and the majority of the soundtrack’s melodies are synth-based. Mercury and May turned in the strongest pieces. Mercury’s “Ming’s Theme” is suitably sinister, “The Kiss (Aura resurrects Flash)” is gorgeously seductive, and “Football Fight” is upbeat fun. May brings his distinctive guitar touch to the likes of “Battle Theme,” “The Hero,” and of course “Flash’s Theme,” the latter released as a single, and, like the soundtrack album, enlivened with snatches of the film’s comic strip dialogue: “Flash, I love you! But we only have 14 hours to save the earth!”
Queen Rock Montreal
(November 24-25, 1981)
Given his penchant for glittery, glam-inspired stage wear, it’s something of a shock to see Mercury stalking around the stage not clad in satin but in ordinary denim, of all things. At least by the show’s end he’s prancing and posing in nothing more than a pair of tight white shorts (he’s even barefoot). Whew. He’s also now sporting the moustache that would so divide the fans, causing them to throw razors at Mercury at some concerts. These shows were set up specifically to be filmed, and while the pacing is off at times (“Jailhouse Rock” sits uneasily beside “Bohemian Rhapsody”), the band is sizzling. And they’re still close enough to the audience that Mercury can shake hands with the fans packed down front.
(September 25, 1982)
They didn’t have David Bowie who sang on the single. And Mercury’s throat was noticeably rough. But the show must go on, and, ever the consummate professionals, Queen does their best to make their sole appearance on Saturday Night Live memorable. Mercury, attired in jeans and leather jacket, cuts a few sharp moves and pushes his voice as much as he can, getting a little extra help from Taylor. The band’s also clearly enjoying themselves; famously stoic bassist Deacon even cracks a smile. And though no one knew it then, it was the last time Queen’s original lineup would perform live in the U.S. Bonus trivia: the other song the band played was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”).
“Radio Ga Ga”
If nothing else, Queen’s video for “Radio Ga Ga” will be remembered for its introducing a key bit of audience participation at the band’s subsequent shows; during the song’s chorus, the audience would raise their hands and mimic the double claps seen performed by a crowd in the video. The video draws on footage from the classic Fritz Lang silent film Metropolis (Mercury had recently written the song “Love Kills” for a re-release of the film, featuring a new score by Giorgio Moroder), with the band seen in a car flying through the futuristic city. Of course it’s something of an irony that radio is being celebrated in the very medium—video—that was thought to be replacing it. Not to mention the video’s gloomy end, with family listening to their beloved wireless apparently vaporized.
“I Want to Break Free”
(March 22 and May 4, 1984)
Queen started the ’80s with their first No. 1 album in America, The Works. But their stock dropped rapidly stateside after that, with every subsequent album failing to even crack the Top 20. “Radio Ga Ga” managed to climb to No. 16, but the bottom dropped out with this single. A chief reason was the lack of promotion due to the horror provoked by this video, which features the band’s members in drag, parodying characters in the popular U.K. television series Coronation Street. It’s arguably Mercury’s best performance in a video, made all the more hysterical because he hasn’t shaved his moustache. According to May, U.S. station programmers “hated” the video: “I was in some of those U.S. TV stations when they got the video, and a lot of them refused to play it,” he told Mojo. They can’t have liked the ballet sequence, where Mercury lays on top of a moving river of male bodies, any better.
(July 13, 1985)
“Live Aid was a shot in the arm for us,” said Taylor. Queen had missed out appearing on 1984’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” benefit single, which raised funds for African famine relief. They’d just finished a major tour promoting The Works, and Taylor admitted he wasn’t sure Queen would even tour again. But a slot at Live Aid (again benefiting African famine relief), playing to a worldwide audience of several million, was too good to pass up. The band took the stage at 6:41pm, and had their 20-minute set timed to the last second. First, warm up the crowd with the opening of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Then, before the song’s opera section, a quick jump into “Radio Ga Ga” (cue the audience hand claps). After a little call-and-response with the audience, it’s straight into “Hammer to Fall” (Mercury having more than a little phallic fun with his microphone), “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and the double-whammy of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” It’s a powerhouse set that reconfirmed Queen’s prowess as live performers. “Live Aid proved we didn’t need backdrops or the cover of darkness,” said May. “I’ll remember Live Aid till the day I die.”
It was U.K. rock act Marillion who were first approached to provide music for Highlander, a fantasy/adventure film about an immortal warrior. But when touring commitments prevented the band from participating, Queen was approached, and after watching 20 minutes of footage, agreed to take on the project. The most notable song was the heartfelt “Who Wants to Live Forever,” written by May (and featuring orchestration by Michael Kamen, conducting Britain’s National Philharmonic Orchestra), which mirrored the loss felt by the film’s lead character, an immortal doomed to outlive his mortal loved ones. The rousing “Princes of the Universe” and guitar pyrotechnics of “Gimme the Prize (Kurgan’s Theme)” are other highlights. Queen wrote six songs for the film, which they then re-recorded, in alternate and/or expanded versions, for their 1986 album A Kind of Magic. Bonus trivia: the film’s star, Christopher Lambert,” appears in the video for the album version of “Princes of the Universe.”
Live at Wembley Stadium
(July 12, 1986)
“We’re not bad for four aging queens, are we?” was Mercury’s playful jest at the second of Queen’s celebratory gigs at Wembley Stadium in 1986. After their revitalization at Live Aid, the 1986 tour was a victory lap for the band, the shows opening with the euphoric “One Vision” (a song itself partly inspired by the Live Aid experience). Mercury has little problem holding forth on what would be the largest stage the band ever performed on, May gets his obligatory guitar solo, there’s a mostly acoustic rock ‘n’ roll section (“Hello Mary Lou,” “Tutti Frutti”), and Mercury emerges at the end attired in a ermine cape and regal crown. “We’re going to stay together until we f**king well die,” Mercury proclaims at one point, though while the band’s original lineup did release another two albums, after 1986 there would be no more live shows. Bonus trivia: the 2011 DVD includes the July 11 show as well.
Queen took a unique approach for their last single of the 1980s. It’s a straight performance video—but wait! Instead of Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor, it’s four teenage boys playing them. Ross McCall, as Freddie, gets the most costume changes: a Harlequin-patterned leotard, black biker outfit, jeans and white tank top, and the white track pants and yellow jacket ensemble Freddie wore in the 1986 shows. McCall gives a remarkable performance that must be seen to be believed. The real Queen eventually come out alongside their younger charges to join in on the fun. “It was a joy to make,” Taylor said of the video. “We were smiling all day.” Bonus trivia: McCall later appeared in the TV series Band of Brothers and White Collar.
“I’m Going Slightly Mad”
To mitigate signs of his illness (Mercury wouldn’t announce that he had AIDS until the day before he died), he wore heavy makeup in the video, which was also shot in black and white. But while noting, with some understatement, “I’m not my usual top billing,” he nonetheless admirably rises to the occasion, giving this surreal piece (May dressed as a penguin, Taylor with a boiling tea kettle on his head) just the right touch of camp. Just look at how he twirls a daffodil, and bites a banana with such relish.
“These Are the Days of Our Lives”
(May 31, 1991)
This was the last video Mercury would make (again in black and white), shot just under six months before his death. As it was painful for Mercury to walk, or even stand, he remains largely stationary throughout, relying on his face to express the song’s emotions. It’s a beautiful performance, even if you don’t know the physical strain he was under. His final line is delivered straight to the camera: “I still love you.” Bonus trivia: the vest he’s wearing is decorated with illustrations of his cats.
“I think we’ll go with a little ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ gentlemen?” Though it’s now hard to imagine Wayne’s World opening with any other song but “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it wasn’t everyone’s first pick. “I thought it was an odd choice,” the film’s director, Penelope Spheeris, told Rolling Stone, “because if you are headbangers that wouldn’t be your first choice to slam to in the car when you’re cruising.” But Mike Myers, the film’s star and co-screenwriter, fought for the song’s inclusion, and it was kept in (though he may have regretted it, considering the four hours it took to film the sequence where Wayne and his gang headbang during the song’s rock section, leaving the actors with headaches). Mercury was shown the film’s clip prior to his death, and, according to May, loved it. “Bohemian Rhapsody” had been reissued in January 1992, following Mercury’s death; the release of Wayne’s World the following month helped push the single to No. 2 in the U.S. charts, a higher position than it had reached on its initial release (when it peaked at No. 9).