If you’ve already heard that the new Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is bad, I am here to confirm that you heard right. Disjointed, superficial, shoddy, and ultimately anonymous, it’s a write-off with an excellent soundtrack — all the while, you watch the film’s troubled production history unfold along with the actual movie. But even if the credited director, Bryan Singer, who was finally told to take a hike from the infamously chaotic set, weren’t unprofessional and an alleged sex criminal, it’s hard to imagine this weirdly chaste take on Mercury’s life being successful.
How do you make a movie about the lead singer of Queen that’s PG-13? Mercury did not live a PG-13 kind of life; he abhorred the very idea of a PG-13 kind of life. Engaging in R-rated mayhem (or NC-17, if we’re talking about the afterparty) was the whole point of being Freddie Mercury. Bohemian Rhapsody without explicit decadence is like Patton without war scenes, Raging Bull without fight scenes, or Monster without all that serial killing.
There are other problems for those of us who actually know and love Queen’s music. Bohemian Rhapsody has been likened to a “glorified Wikipedia entry,” but that’s actually a disservice to Wikipedia. Look up Queen’s discography on Wikipedia and at least you’ll find the albums listed in correct order. Bohemian Rhapsody can’t be bothered to get even this basic information correct. “Fat Bottomed Girls” plays during a sequence depicting Queen’s first U.S. tour, even though the song was released four years later. Queen is shown recording “We Will Rock You” in 1980, three years after the song appeared on News of the World. It is implied that “Another One Bites the Dust” was part of 1982’s Hot Space, Queen’s controversial disco experiment, when in fact it went to no. 1 in the U.S. two years prior.
And yet … I can’t say I hated this movie. If it pops up on Cinemax in six months, I will probably watch it an additional 20 times. If you regard Bohemian Rhapsody as an excuse to sit in the dark and listen to Queen songs, well, there are far less entertaining ways to spend two hours.
To be fair, making a movie about Queen would be untenable for anybody. Is there a more contradictory band in rock history? Distilling Queen down to fit a convenient biopic narrative, any narrative, inevitably leaves a whole lot out. Queen side-stepped every binary — gay and straight, masculine and feminine, good taste and bad taste, art and kitsch, rockist and poptimist, earnest and ironic, pretentious and self-deprecating, silly and profound, clever and stupid, metal and soft rock, funky and [rigid “We Will Rock You” clapping].
Freddie Mercury didn’t fight against this in order to establish that, the plot of every real-life hero’s story. He just kind of did … everything. He was a gay icon who also ruled heavy-metal parking lots. He danced with regal ballets and in shady discos, and head-banged in a sea of mullets. He wrote the creamiest pop anthems and the nerdiest prog-rock tracks. He adored Aretha Franklin and Luciano Pavarotti and Electric Ladyland. He wore a unitard on stage and actually appeared dignified. And he never acted as though any of this was strange or unexpected, which convinced his audience to also erase in their minds the artificial boundaries between genres and people. That’s why he was heroic. He fought against against.
The central contradiction of Queen’s career is that it was a true band in which all four members — Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon — wrote huge hits and provided essential equilibrium, while also being first and foremost about Freddie Mercury. I refer not to the person, but rather the outrageous fantasy dreamed up by a shy and closeted young man from Zanzibar named Farrokh Bulsara. In 1970, Bulsara met May and Taylor, and insisted on calling their band Queen. He also conjured Freddie Mercury as a vehicle for expressing his truest self and — for a while anyway — hiding from the pain and awkwardness that afflicted him when he was merely Farrokh.
But Mercury was also an avatar for the other guys in Queen. I doubt that Brian May would’ve written “We Will Rock You” or Roger Taylor would’ve penned “Radio Ga Ga” if they hadn’t had Freddie at their disposal as a dream weaver. And what about the bookish and uncool and near-mute John Deacon, writer of “Another One Bites the Dust” and “I Want to Break Free”? Did Deacon, who retreated to reclusive retirement after Mercury’s death, truly long to “break free”? Only if Freddie Mercury sang about it on his behalf.
That’s a story you can’t really capture in a conventional movie. Fortunately, we still have one of the strangest, goofiest, most diverse, most entertaining, and most successful discographies put out by anybody in the past 50 years. Taken together, the albums Queen released while Mercury was alive, from the self-titled 1973 debut up through 1991’s Innuendo, tell this band’s epic tale better than anything.
In 2011, Pitchfork reviewed a reissue of this record, giving it a 6.7, which actually seems pretty generous for Pitchfork. Here’s a thought experiment: How would have Pitchfork assessed a band like Queen had the site been around in 1973? Would it have praised Queen’s debut as “quite clearly the work of an assured group of young men”? Or would it have mocked Queen as lamentably arrogant, laughably delusional, and transparently derivative? After all, Queen is based on an equation — David Bowie + Led Zeppelin = maximum bombast — that Bowie himself executed (arguably better) a full three years earlier on The Man Who Sold the World. That’s an eternity in 1970s rock time. Even the members of Queen felt they were beyond this record when it came out, in part because it took so long to find a label willing to put it out. When Queen finally was released, nobody cared.
The primary issue with Queen’s debut has to do with scale versus circumstance. World-conquering stadium-rock bands never make any sense when they first start out, because they haven’t conquered any stadiums yet. Outsized, overheated, hysterically exaggerated, and maniacally theatrical posturing needs to exist in front of a minimum of 10,000 people to not look ridiculous. It’s the same reason why boy bands don’t play bars. When you choose to operate in this rarefied lane, “cult status” isn’t allowed.
How frivolous must this album have seemed at the time? There’s a power ballad that recounts the story of Jesus Christ, for Christ’s sake. There’s another power ballad in which Freddie Mercury establishes some self-made mythology about a magical land called Rhye, later referenced in the album’s second-catchiest rocker that actually functions as a brief album-closing teaser for the next album. There’s another track called “Great King Rat” that includes approximately 27 tempo changes. Let’s just say the entire enterprise is a handful.
All that really matters here is “Keep Yourself Alive,” the one inarguable classic, not counting the “Seven Seas of Rhye...”/Queen II preview. Brian May’s opening riff is the missing link between Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and Heart’s “Barracuda” in classic rock history. But his most crucial guitar tone occurs at 1:03, right as the chorus hits. It’s an improbably bright and shiny sound — a spotless, inorganic, futuristic, robotic ring that sounds like a Mellotron shooting rainbow-colored laser beams dipped in honey and sparkles.
Along with Mercury’s voice, that guitar tone is the absolute foundation of the Queen sound. May coaxed it out of his Red Special, a three-pickup, double-cutaway guitar that he designed and built himself with his father in 1964. His Excalibur. Before Queen got it together, they at least had that. Grade: B-
Queen II (1974)
Noted super-fan Axl Rose gave an interview to Rolling Stone in 1989 in which he listed Queen II as his favorite Queen LP. Two years later, Guns N’ Roses released two extravagant double-albums, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, on the same day. This is not a coincidence.
In 1993, Billy Corgan mentioned Queen II as a formative influence in an interview with the Melody Maker. Two years after that, Smashing Pumpkins put out their most extravagant double-album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. This is also not a coincidence.
As the go-to entry point for lonely Midwestern boys with Hit Parader subscriptions and fantasies of arena-oriented manifest destiny, Queen II is the most megalomaniacal entry in the band’s discography, a dank and impenetrable pile-up of overdubs upon overdubs upon still more overdubs, all in service of majestic, manic-depressive art-metal epics about monsters, medieval kings and queens, and “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” If you want to blame the existence of Muse on Queen, Queen II is exhibit A. The working title of this album was literally Over the Top.
If you’re a Queen fan, “over the top” always registers as compliment, and I mostly mean it that way, too. Queen II is precisely the sort of unrestrained excess you want from Queen — in theory, at least, though this is also the least melodic record in the band’s catalog, so working your way through “Ogre Battle” can feel like waging an actual ogre battle. Grade: B
Sheer Heart Attack (1974)
This is the album that’s known among Queen-heads as The One Where It All Comes Together. Whereas the first two records sound like Rush if Neil Peart had read Oscar Wilde instead of Ayn Rand, Sheer Heart Attack has a genuine pop sense spotlighted by Queen’s first international hit, “Killer Queen.” Freddie drops the “Tolkien but hornier” affectations of Queen II and gets down to the business of competing in the same marketplace as Wings and Elton John, relating a naughty narrative about a bisexual call girl who gets it on with Khrushchev and Kennedy, though I suspect the part about being “dynamite with a laser beam” actually refers to May’s guitar solo, an interstellar soft-shoe over the swanky, mock-vaudevillian piano lick.
Sheer Heart Attack is notable for two other reasons: It’s the first Queen album in which all four members contribute songs, with John Deacon finally joining the fray with the minor, self-deprecating “Misfire” and Roger Taylor stepping up with his best composition of Queen’s “early” period, “Tenement Funster,” introducing a subgenre of “Fun”-related Roger Taylor content. (Other entries include “Fun It,” from 1978’s Jazz, plus the solo albums Fun in Space and Fun on Earth, neither of which you need to hear.)
The other notable development on Sheer Heart Attack is the stylistic range, particularly for Mercury, who finally indulges his Liberace side on “Lily of the Valley” and also invents thrash metal on “Stone Cold Crazy.” That Mercury could commit to both extremes — and dozens of points between them on subsequent records — remains the key to his musical genius. Grade: A-
A Night at the Opera (1975)
The most quintessentially Queen! Queen album, this LP represented the full flowering of the band’s partnership with Roy Thomas Baker, producer of the first five albums, who was like George Martin if he had been written and directed by Ken Russell.
If you only know Queen’s hits, A Night at the Opera is the best place to start a deeper dive. This place has everything: a bitter rocker about a thieving ex-manager (“Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To...”), a perfect wedding song (“You’re My Best Friend”), an ode to fucking automobiles (“I’m in Love With My Car”), a Woody Guthrie ballad about space travel (“’39”), an ode to fucking humans (“Sweet Lady”), a hyperconvoluted callback to Queen II (“The Prophet’s Song”), and a demonstration by May of how to make a guitar sound like a Dixieland jazz band (“Good Company”).
The most famous track, of course, is “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The mythology of this song tends to dwell on the production, particularly the scores of vocal parts — supposedly there are 180 of them — that were layered in the song’s opera section, as well as the initial challenge of convincing the band’s label to put it out as a single. (Both factor in for the “Bohemian Rhapsody” sequence in Bohemian Rhapsody.) What’s overlooked are the lyrics, which are dismissed as nonsense by some and interpreted by others as Mercury’s unofficial coming-out statement. If you apply that subtext, you can hear echoes of it in nearly every lyric, from the opening narrative about a boy who makes a tearful confession to his “mama” and must now leave his old life behind, to the catharsis of the climactic rock section, in which the narrator finally pledges to “get right out of here,” no matter the abuse he might face.
There are other hints about Mercury’s love life on A Night at the Opera. The seemingly straightforward love song “Love of My Life” is widely assumed to be about Mary Austin, the live-in girlfriend whose romantic relationship with Mercury ended soon after Opera became a worldwide hit. (This is another major plot point in Bohemian Rhapsody.) But in 2016’s Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury, authors Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne insist it’s actually about David Minns, Mercury’s lover at the time. (Minns is not depicted in the film.)
What’s amazing is how many people still don’t hear those songs as expressions of Mercury’s homosexuality. “Bohemian Rhapsody” burrowed into the reddest parts of Middle America and elsewhere, no questions asked, even if it dramatically begs to be questioned. With A Night at the Opera, Mercury learned how to be himself in public while still somehow remaining in the closet. Grade: A
A Day at the Races (1976)
Also known as Another Night at the Opera, the Greta Van Fleet to the previous album’s Led Zeppelin. Most of Races is made up of lesser retreads of Queen’s best songs from the previous four albums. “Tie Your Mother Down” is a weaker “Keep Yourself Alive,” “The Millionaire Waltz” straight up bites “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “White Man” is an even sillier redux of “The Prophet’s Song,” and “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” is “Killer Queen” without the JFK screwing.
Nevertheless, it was a huge hit, no doubt helped by “Somebody to Love,” a pop-gospel masterpiece and one of the best-ever showcases for Queen’s thunderous three-part harmonies —Mercury in the middle, May down low, and the normally gruff-voiced Taylor way on the high end.
For those inclined to view Mercury’s life as a tragedy, “Somebody to Love” is regarded as his Rosebud. Mercury, by his own account, was a lonely man, the prototypical extroverted pop star who everybody loves and yet can’t treat as an actual human being. But this interpretation disregards the exuberance of Mercury’s performance. He might need somebody to love, but he’s clearly infatuated by the elasticity and power of his own voice.
Mercury wrote “Somebody to Love” for Aretha Franklin, though it didn’t really reflect the reality of his personal life, as he was about to embark on an extended period of unchecked debauchery that lasted almost 10 years. Aretha never covered “Somebody to Love,” unfortunately, though the Queen of Soul’s rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” did play at the king of Queen’s funeral 15 years later. Grade: B-
News of the World (1977)
In his review of Jazz, Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone called Queen “the first truly fascist rock band.” I’m guessing he was actually referring to the previous Queen LP, News of the World, which starts off with two songs explicitly intended to rile up large crowds: May’s “We Will Rock You” and Mercury’s “We Are the Champions.” Marsh’s assessment seems divorced from the intentions of the band members. Imagine if, say, Kiss had come up with “We Will Rock You” — we might still be pledging allegiance to our strongman president Gene Simmons all these years later. But the guys in Queen were iconoclasts who nonetheless had an unquenchable desire to please every sort of crowd. If that meant entertaining drunks during timeouts at basketball games with interstitial music, then here, enjoy this banging rhythm track.
News of the World is sometimes regarded as Queen’s “punk” album, as the release coincided with the rise of the Ramones, Sex Pistols, and the Clash. (Queen supposedly encountered the Pistols in a recording studio while making World; Sid Vicious called Freddie Mercury “Freddie Platinum,” and Mercury referred to Sid Vicious as “Mr. Ferocious” — I imagine this going down like the news-team fights in Anchorman.) It was also, sonically speaking, the least excessive Queen album since the debut, though only Taylor’s “Sheer Heart Attack” even vaguely resembles punk. (“Get Down, Make Love,” meanwhile, suggests that Queen still very much minded the bollocks.) This album’s contemporary street cred comes courtesy of Kurt Cobain, who talks in the 2007 documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son about playing News of the World on 8-track over and over in the family van in order to drain the battery while his dad was at work. If that’s not the epitome of “stick it to the man” antifascism, I don’t know what is. Grade: A-
This album had one of the all-time wildest release parties in the history of the record business. I’ll just quote from the Rolling Stone account: “Queen threw a bash in New Orleans that featured snake charmers, strippers, transvestites and a naked fat lady who smoked cigarettes in her crotch.” Jazz can’t really live up to that, though you can certainly detect an influx of sleaze on the record. May’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” is a song that seems patently sexist and yet has been defended by feminists. (May himself claims that he was paying tribute to the “average” people he saw in the audience at Queen shows.) And then there’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” Mercury’s rousing tribute to his own libido, in which he proclaims that “he’s a sex machine ready to reload.” In the music video, Mercury can be seen quite clearly wearing a T-shirt advertising the Mineshaft, the grimy members-only Manhattan BDSM bar that opened in 1976 and included dungeons, jail cells, and rooms where people urinated on other people.
I suspect that “Don’t Stop Me Now” doesn’t make most people think about sex dungeons. It’s generally regarded as a happy-go-lucky anthem; in 2014, it was voted as the best driving song ever by U.K. motorists. At about 370 million spins, “Don’t Stop Me Now” is currently Queen’s second-most streamed track on Spotify, putting it well behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” (about 500 million) and comfortably ahead of “Another One Bites the Dust” (about 315 million). But May was initially wary of the song, and didn’t play much guitar on it. “We were worried about Freddie at this point and I think that feeling lingers,” he said in 2011. What draws people in is the pure athleticism of Mercury’s vocal. He sings rapidly and with intense aggression, and yet he’s also extremely precise — he attacks his vocals like LeBron closing in from halfcourt to block a shot from 50 feet away. (Nobody has written as many songs that are karaoke staples and yet are impossible for the average person to sing.) The end result sounds more than a little manic, and that coked-out energy permeates the rest of Jazz. Grade: B+
The Game (1980)
By the dawn of the ’80s, Led Zeppelin was finished, the Who was hobbled by the loss of Keith Moon, Black Sabbath had a new singer, and the Rolling Stones were about to limp into a creatively fallow period. As for Queen, they became more popular than ever in the U.S. with The Game, the album that represents the band’s full-on embrace of pop music. At the time, they had relocated to Munich as tax exiles, and holed up at a studio established by Giorgio Moroder. Working with new producer Reinhold Mack, Queen’s records became leaner, funkier, and progressively less hetero.
On the cover, the four members don leather jackets — it’s possible this was dictated by Mercury’s enthusiastic embrace of Munich’s gay club scene, though you could also point to the recent success of Grease or the bad-ass cool of Mad Max. At any rate, Queen was always the most malleable of classic-rock bands, and The Game found them diverging even more radically from their original hard-rock template.
There’s an oft-told anecdote about how “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” Queen’s first no. 1 single in the United States, was written by Mercury in the bathtub in about 10 minutes. What I wonder is whether he was consciously catering to the emerging “urban cowboy” movement, eventually immortalized in the classic John Travolta film that came out the same month as The Game. (“Need Your Loving Tonight” also sounds like it could’ve been covered by Eddie Rabbitt.) As for the album’s other monster hit, “Another One Bites the Dust,” Queen had the good sense to both rip off Chic’s “Good Times” and heed the commercial advice of Michael Jackson, who suggested releasing the song as a single. It’s bizarre that this wasn’t already self-evident — would Queen have pushed “Dragon Attack” on radio if not for MJ’s interference? Grade: A-
Flash Gordon (1980)
Brian May was Queen’s Jonny Greenwood, and he dominates this soundtrack for a thoroughly terrible and mostly forgotten science-fiction disaster. The album, though, is a surprisingly low-key and atmospheric affair. If Jonny G. were hired to write music for Venom, he might’ve come up with something like this. Grade: C+
Hot Space (1982)
I’ll be honest: This exhaustive deep dive into Queen’s catalog was really just an excuse for me to talk about Hot Space, the little-loved disco-rock experiment that’s … actually pretty awesome? We’re long overdue for a revisionist assessment of bangers like May’s “Dancer” and Deacon’s “Back Chat,” both of which I demand be covered by The 1975 as soon as possible. For all the fanfare that the Rolling Stones still receive for shunning the haters and diving neck-deep into dance music on Some Girls and Emotional Rescue, Queen actually pushed that idea in an even riskier, darker, and all-around sluttier direction. If the Stones were aiming for Studio 54, Queen ventures into Cruising territory.
At the time, Hot Space was blamed for tanking Queen’s career in the U.S. and seriously hobbling it in Europe. Critics of the record hid behind euphemisms, but it’s hard to read the backlash against Hot Space as anything but a violent reaction against Mercury dropping all “macho rock and roll” pretenses. On the cover, he sports his now-iconic “Castro clone” look for the first time, and on the single “Body Language,” he all but declares his passion for sweaty gay sex. Behind the scenes, Hot Space represents the peak of Mercury’s hedonistic Munich period, when he felt free to express himself sexually, out in the open, away from the bullying British tabloids that tormented him in his final years.
My favorite story from this era comes from Lesley-Ann Jones’s Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury: Freddie stands on a balcony, naked, and sings “We Are the Champions” to a group of construction workers. “Whoever has the biggest dick, come on up!” he shouts. Now there’s a scene that needed to be in Bohemian Rhapsody.
The one song that salvaged Hot Space commercially was “Under Pressure,” the product of a 24-hour whirlwind of cocaine and sinewy bass lines with David Bowie. But the rest of the album deserves another look. In the realm of arena rock, Hot Space remains an unprecedented provocation — imagine if Bono had married the Edge before U2 released Pop and you have a decent approximation. Grade: B+
The Works (1984)
This is where the timeline in Bohemian Rhapsody really goes off the rails. [This is a spoiler alert. Don’t read past here if you don’t want to know how the Queen movie fabricates the band’s history. I would argue that I’m doing you a favor by spoiling it. But proceed at your own risk.] The film’s third act essentially sells out reality in order to goose the drama of the climactic Live Aid performance. Part of that involves downplaying the success of The Works, Queen’s last truly great album, which reestablished the band’s commercial bona fides in Europe and pretty much every place else outside the United States, due to the inclusion of two all-time Queen singles, Taylor’s “Radio Ga Ga” and Deacon’s “I Want to Break Free.”
Bohemian Rhapsody suggests that Queen hadn’t played in years before Live Aid because Mercury was preoccupied with establishing a solo career. In reality, Queen played 48 gigs from late 1984 to mid 1985, wrapping up not long before Live Aid. The most momentous shows were scheduled for October 1984 in South Africa, when Queen defied international boycotts by agreeing to play the country during the apartheid era. The decision nearly shit-canned Queen’s career and eventually overshadowed The Works, an otherwise strong album that emulates the sound and formula (and even the title) of The Game. Apparently, the South Africa flap still haunts the band, given that the incident was whitewashed from the film. Grade: A-
Freddie Mercury, Mr. Bad Guy (1985)
I also need to correct the record regarding Freddie Mercury’s first solo record, depicted in Bohemian Rhapsody as an ego-driven folly that nearly broke up the band. In truth, Mr. Bad Guy caused little apparent detriment to Queen, as the band made The Works at around the same time. Artistically, Mr. Bad Guy is the platonic ideal of a solo record by a singer in an extremely famous band. Basically, Mercury redirected his interest in dance music away from Queen (so that the band could subsequently “return to rock!” on The Works), which allowed him to pursue this direction unfettered on his own.
It’s intriguing to ponder whether Mr. Bad Guy would’ve been more successful if Mercury could’ve devoted his full attention to a solo career. Michael Jackson was supposed to appear on several tracks, but the collaboration eventually was derailed. (You can find endless speculation as to why in various Queen and Freddie Mercury books. Somebody to Love suggests that Mercury grew tired of MJ bringing his pet chimp, Bubbles, to the studio. Could this possibly be true? For the sake of comedy, I have chosen to believe that it is.) As it is, the mix of rock, dance, and melodramatic ballads on Mr. Bad Guy is reminiscent of one of the decade’s biggest pop records, George Michael’s Faith, released two years later. Grade: B
THIS IS WHERE WE TALK ABOUT LIVE AID
The most problematic “elaborations” on the truth in Bohemian Rhapsody are that Mercury (1) had AIDS at the time of Live Aid and (2) told the other guys in Queen before the performance. The second part is almost certainly not true — Live Aid revitalized Queen’s career as a live act, leading to the highly successful Magic tour in 1986, which climaxed with two massive sold-out concerts at Wembley Stadium, Mercury’s final shows with Queen. Not only did May and Taylor not know Mercury was sick during that tour, May says in the 2011 documentary Queen: Days of Our Lives that Mercury didn’t discuss his diagnosis with the band until the making of 1989’s The Miracle.
As for the first assertion, we can’t know for sure, given the lack of candor by Mercury, the members of Queen, and those in their orbit at the time, as to when exactly he contracted HIV. Various books and press accounts suggest that he might have known that he was sick on the Magic tour. Somebody to Love speculates that while Mercury likely took an HIV test near the end of 1985, he might have already been unknowingly infected several years before that. At Live Aid, Mercury had a sore throat, a chronic symptom among people living with HIV. Of course, it might have just been a sore throat.
The timeline here is murky and, more importantly, beside the point. Take away the context of Mercury’s illness, and “Radio Ga Ga” at Live Aid is still the greatest stadium-rock performance of all time. Queen’s entire set is amazing, but “Radio Ga Ga” is especially crucial because it makes a convincing case for stadium rock at its absolute finest being a force for communal — utopian, even — good in the world.
After coming out and playing the opening part of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Mercury steps out from behind the piano with his trademark sawed-off microphone stand, ready to pounce. Apparently, the band was nervous before the show — the stigma of the South Africa shows (several of which were canceled because Mercury lost his voice) still lingered.
Watching the Live Aid performance, you sense an increase in momentum after the first chorus of “Radio Ga Ga,” when the audience starts mimicking the rhythmic clapping routine from the video. Freddie steps away from the edge of the stage, does this strutting-rooster walk, and then blasts into the second verse with renewed vigor. He pumps his fist at the crowd like a populist politician railing against the powers that be. He’s insisting that you follow him into battle, and nobody who sees him can possibly resist. By the time the chorus comes back around, he knows he has the whole world at his feet. (The audience watching via satellite at the Philadelphia Live Aid gig was also clapping along.)
This is where Live Aid telecast director Vincent Scarza deserves a shout-out: He holds on a shot of Mercury from behind, so we can see how 72,000 people react to Freddie in real time. The image of so many people forming a single organism, because they all love this magical mustachioed maverick, never fails to choke me up. It says more about what made Freddie Mercury special in about six seconds than Bohemian Rhapsody does in 134 minutes.
A Kind of Magic (1986)
Now that Queen was reestablished as one of the world’s biggest rock bands, they seized the moment by … writing a bunch of songs for Highlander. I know that sounds amazing on paper, but this is probably the blandest and least essential album in Queen’s catalog. Plus, the album cover looks like the opening-credits sequence from The Tracey Ullman Show. Grade: C
The Miracle (1989)
The cover of A Kind of Magic is garish, but the cover of The Miracle should actually be rebooted and turned into a terrifying horror-movie franchise. When I play this album, I have to turn the cover in the opposite direction so that I am not plunged into a hellscape of the mind, where down is up and up is down and reality is a room of funhouse mirrors owned and operated by a wild man.
All of that aside, this is a very solid “back to basics” record made in the mold of the “greatest hits without the hits” albums that legacy artists inevitably produce late in the game. (Bowie’s The Next Day is a good comparison.) The album-opening “Party” is a credible Prince-circa-Lovesexy nod, and “I Want It All” and “Breakthru” are convincing-enough red meat for the rock ’n’ roll troglodytes in the fan base. Even better is the quasi-baroque title track, which sounds like the third-best song on XTC’s Oranges & Lemons.
Getting back to the cover: It does have metaphorical significance, in that the band finally agreed to share songwriting credits for the first time. It was also common knowledge by then in the Queen camp that Mercury was not well, so there was a general closing of ranks. Queen was more of a band, and more centered on Freddie, than ever. Grade: B-
Here’s a pitch for a better Queen biopic: It takes place during the making of this album, when Freddie was winding down and yet determined to make music for as long as he could. We learn about the band’s history through a series of flashbacks, each based on the perspectives of the other band members, resulting in a series of different Freddies.
Is that too Todd Haynes? Perhaps. But what makes Innuendo such a poignant parting shot is how May and Taylor were able to express Mercury’s point of view — or a version of his point of view — in the songs “The Show Must Go On” and “These Are the Days of Our Lives,” respectively. Mercury himself is more playful than dour, no matter his weakened state, contributing the slight but charming “I’m Going Slightly Mad” and the love song “Delilah,” an ode to his cat. (I also stan for Taylor’s “Ride the Wild Wind,” which sounds like Lady Gaga covering a War on Drugs song.) Emotionally heavy yet knowingly ludicrous, Innuendo is far better than any Queen album released in 1991 had any right to be, and it holds up as a more than adequate send-off to a singular band. Grade: B
Farrokh Bulsara died on November 24, 1991, but Freddie Mercury just kept right on living, an eternally outrageous idea that others have picked up, tried out, and then passed on to others.
Like so many Gen Xers, I discovered Queen and “Bohemian Rhapsody” via Wayne’s World, which arrived in theaters just three months after Bulsara’s death. Before he passed, he approved of the song’s use in the movie, which propelled “Bohemian Rhapsody” to no. 2 on the U.S. Billboard chart that spring, an even better showing than when it was originally released in 1975. Even as his body failed him, Freddie’s pop instincts remained undiminished.
Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar weren’t the first people to get off on miming a Freddie Mercury song, and they definitely wouldn’t be the last. That April, the three surviving members of Queen hosted the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium, featuring a wide array of superstars performing their music. For “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Elton John sang the ballad part, and Axl Rose sang the rockin’ part. (The opera part was pre-recorded.) George Michael admirably belted “Somebody to Love.” Liza Minnelli closed the show with “We Are the Champions.” Nobody did their specific thing as well as Mercury did everything.
In 1995, Queen released Made in Heaven, featuring Mercury’s final vocal performances on songs that were completed after his death. Queen, incredibly, did not break up after that. Deacon exited into obscurity, but May and Taylor kept at it. They toured for a while with quintessential blooze-rock singer Paul Rodgers, a combination that made absolutely no sense to anybody except Queen fans extremely desperate to see the band play live again.
Since 2011, Queen has performed with former American Idol contestant Adam Lambert. He’s pretty good, in a cruise-ship kind of way. When he sings “Don’t Stop Me Now,” he leans on camp rather than pathos. I don’t begrudge him that; we’re all entitled to our own Freddie Mercurys. Besides, look at the size of the crowd in this video. They’re still pleasing people, all people, anywhere and everywhere. Don’t stop Queen now. You can’t.