Queen in the movies
Two classic 80s cult movies featured soundtracks from Queen. Aliya looks back at the band's contributions to Flash Gordon and Highlander...
It wouldn’t be quite right to say there can be only one – in fact, Queen made two movie soundtracks, both of them in the 80s, and both of them for science fiction films. The genre suited Queen’s music. Their hard rock edge could easily give way to a lighter, even operatic sound, and after years of proclaiming proudly that they never used synthesisers, by the 80s, Queen had embraced the more challenging noises that could be produced electronically to great effect.
In fact, Queen songs have been hijacked wholesale by a number of genres. Films with a gooey centre use the gospel element of Somebody To Love (Ella Enchanted and Happy Feet, for instance) while We Will Rock You turns up in adventure films with rousing crowd scenes; in particular, it’s used to great effect in the gleefully anachronistic A Knight’s Tale. There are loads of examples – some of my favourites are We Are The Champions in High Fidelity and, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody in Wayne’s World. But only Flash Gordon (1980) and Highlander (1986) boasted a series of songs by the band. Here’s a look back at both of them.
Queen were a perfect fit for this film, for the simple reason that both the script and the band were tongue-in-cheek. The producer, Dino De Laurentiis, asked Queen to produce a soundtrack over which they were given complete control. They came up with a great theme song that pretty much everyone around the world recognises, and they also made some amazing incidental music that still turns up in movies today.
Flash Gordon is an iconic hero. He started life as a comic strip back in 1934 and was played by Buster Crabbe in a number of serial films from 1936 to 1940 that were fast, fun and thrilling. By the time he was revived, to be played by Sam J Jones in 1980, he was a cultural icon, representing everything good about America – brave, adventurous, handsome, great at sport, and always going to get the girl. This film version didn’t mess with any of those assumptions, and instead turned the whole thing up to 11, going large on the spectacle of meteor storms, space flight and crash-landings on strange planets.
Everything was just so huge that Sam J Jones is often accused of getting a bit lost amongst it, but there’s something solid and grounded about his performance. He doesn’t ham it up or beat his chest in manliness, which is a relief in a film that includes some of the most bombastic actors to be found. Brian Blessed turns up with his enormous voice, a spiky golden helmet and a pair of wings, and blasts his way through the script in such memorable fashion that he was instantly recognisable when he reprised his role as Prince Vultan in Family Guy episode Road To Germany in 2008. Topol played Dr Hans Zarkov with enthusiasm, and Melody J Anderson was an excellent Dale Arden, particularly when she got to share the screen with the magnificently creepy Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless.
Such performances suited Queen’s music. Some of the best moments in the film are when the incidental pieces chime in perfectly with the grandeur of the actor – for instance, to the sound of Vultan’s Theme (written by Freddie Mercury) Brian Blessed flies through the sky with his Hawk Men and says, “Who wants to live forever?” before giving a barrel laugh and screaming, "Dive!" to join the attack against Ming’s forces. Does that sound manic? It is. But it’s also loads of fun to watch.
With the success of Star Wars and Superman as its model, De Laurentiis may have thought he was on to a winner, and yet Flash Gordon was only a modest success worldwide (it did great business in the UK though) upon release. Over the years it’s become a cult classic and has seeped into public consciousness, to the extent where films such as Ted and Blades Of Glory can reference it without losing the audience. The music is a huge part of that notoriety. One of the first times that a rock band was asked to compose and perform a score for a high-budget production, it showed how a great marriage of sound and vision could come from allowing the artists to retain control of what they do best – writing music.
Okay, so it’s a cheat to claim that Queen did the whole soundtrack for Highlander. In fact, the original orchestral score was composed by Michael Kamen, who also did amazing scores for films such as Brazil and Die Hard. Queen contributed a number of complete songs to the film and they fit perfectly with Kamen’s score to give Highlander a hard edge when it is needed, and quiet moments of sadness in juxtaposition.
Highlander was written by Gregory Widen, who sold the script when he was still an undergraduate in the Screenwriting program at UCLA. Based on the idea that immortal warriors have been fighting through the ages in order to claim an unspecified ‘prize’ (well, until the end of the movie, at least), Christopher Lambert plays Connor MacLeod, born in the Scottish Highlands and educated by Egyptian immortal Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, played by Sean Connery. Yes – they did set a film in the Highlands and then cast Sean Connery as an Egyptian, but they also cast the wonderful Clancy Brown as The Kurgan, so it’s not all bad. The Kurgan, much like Ming the Merciless, is a villain you can enjoy. He’s horrifying to look at, and yet he has a great sense of dark humour that’s evident in his leer and his sheer pleasure in blaspheming and generally terrorising people.
One of the strongest musical moments of the film revolves around The Kurgan; he kidnaps MacLeod’s girlfriend (played with attitude by Roxanne Hart) and bundles her into a car, playing chicken with oncoming traffic and mocking her screams. The scene starts with the song Don’t Lose Your Head and then morphs into an ironic version of New York, New York that The Kurgan sings along to. With the fast-paced cutting and the blinding lights of the traffic, it’s a riot on the senses.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the use of Who Wants To Live Forever? (this time not being screamed out by Brian Blessed, which would ruin the mood somewhat) to represent the dual edge of the sword of immortality. MacLeod must continue to fight, but watch all those mortals he loves die. The soft, haunting music is used to great effect as he realises this.
The film shares another similarity with Flash Gordon; it also wasn’t well received in the US upon release, and did better in the European markets initially until it gained cult status. Highlander has spawned four sequels so far along with live-action and animated television series; many of these stuck to one of the great strengths of Highlander and used Queen’s music. Currently, a reboot of the original has been languishing in development since 2008, with Ryan Reynolds confirmed to play MacLeod since 2012.
Both Flash Gordon and Highlander would not be the recognisable and enduring films that they are without the musical input of Queen. They’re just like the band – the critics may not have ever loved them, but the audience does. Whenever I switch channels and come across Vultan swooping for victory, or see MacLeod running along the beach at full sprint, I end up watching to the end. And whenever a Queen song comes on the radio I end up singing along. In this age where recognition is the thing we’re all striving for, isn’t that as good as it gets?
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