Even though it’s not a great film, there are a number of things about the new Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, that are quite enjoyable. Chief among them are the performance of Rami Malek as lead singer Freddie Mercury, along with the work by Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joseph Mazzello as fellow band members Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon respectively. There’s also that climactic performance at Live Aid, which provides an electric, emotional and truly rousing finale to a movie that, while entertaining, often feels like a condensed Cliff’s Notes version of the history of one of rock’s most unique and inimitable bands.
The way that Bohemian Rhapsody skates over the group’s history, touching down briefly on significant moments before rushing headlong to the next one (and sometimes, in a truly mystifying series of decisions perhaps related to the movie’s production troubles, getting their chronology confused), means that one aspect of the film that is not really given much of a chance to breathe is the artistic and musical environment in which Queen originated and creatively flowered.
The 1970s remains a fantastic period for rock music. Although critics may decry some of the era’s bloat–anyone up for a Yes double LP consisting of just four songs?–the fact that artists were even allowed to take creative risks like that, even if they failed, was a significant one. Artists like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, and the Yardbirds kicked open the doors in the 1960s, allowing a flood of boldly creative acts to pour out into the world, reveling in the freedom offered by rock and willing to try new things on nearly every album they issued.
Queen was one of those acts. Ostensibly a hard rock band with progressive overtones and imagery, particularly on large chunks of their first three or four records, the British quartet never let themselves be filed into one specific niche. Contemporaries of heavier outfits like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, Queen could rock as hard as those bands but embraced a wide musical palette from the start. May and Taylor’s inclination toward harder rock meshed well with Freddie Mercury’s restless, endlessly creative mind and smorgasbord of musical styles. Like the Beatles and the Kinks before them, Queen would change musical styles sometimes within a track itself, let alone from song to song or album to album.
They weren’t alone in this, of course: Listen to any Black Sabbath album from the period, for example, and you’re bound to come across a folk guitar interlude, an experimental electronic concoction, or a delicate classical piano piece amidst the bludgeoning riffs, thunderous drums, and apocalyptic Ozzy Osbourne vocals. Queen just did it more unpredictably, more frequently and more as a matter of course, meaning they’d never be identified with one particular genre of rock.
Rock was just rock back then; whether it was Sabbath, Queen, or countless other acts, just about every rock band was experimental in nature and evolved from album to album. The Beatles, Dylan, and others had established that template, writing their own material and crafting a personal vision that moved forward artistically even if it sometimes meant taking commercial gambles. Those artists shook off the heavy hands of label-mandated producers and staff songwriters to create and nurture their own sound — and made it possible for bands like Queen to exist.
There’s a scene in Bohemian Rhapsody where the band plays the title song–the now-classic six-minute mash-up of balladry, opera, and hard rock–for the head of its record label, EMI, played with no small sense of irony by Mike Myers. The character, of course, is a compendium of exasperated record label execs who care little about art but are desperate to get songs played on the radio…which Myers’ Ray Foster clearly doesn’t see happening with this bizarre piece of prog-art-rock that Freddie Mercury and the boys have presented him with.
What happens next is history, of course, as “Bohemian Rhapsody” does become a single and a monster hit at that, with the song now an iconic slice of pop music history some 43 years after it was first released (I was a kid when it came out, and let me tell you, there was no greater thrill than hearing this song on the radio–nothing else even approached it). But while Foster (or his real-life counterpart) may have grumbled and groaned, the fact that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was recorded at all, let alone released and promoted as a single, could only have happened during that era.
This was a time of free-form experimentation in rock music and briefly on rock radio, even as the same corporate consultants that had turned AM radio into a rigidly controlled flow of news/talk and endlessly repetitive Top 40 stations were about to descend on the still-vibrant territory of FM radio and do the same. Yes, this was also an era when double and triple concept albums or live LPs were something that fans looked forward to as they trundled toward what used to be known as record stores to pick them up. You would come home from the shop with an armful of records and just bathe in them for hours, reading the lyrics, studying the gatefold sleeves and being immersed in the sonic journey that each album seemed carefully designed to send you on.
Even as the 1970s spiraled toward their end, which saw both the brief domination of disco and the snarling fury of punk–a healthy and inevitable response to the hardening of prog-rock’s arteries–the spirit of creativity lived on, both in punk and its offshoot, New Wave, as well as the heavier outbursts of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and its own descendant, the underground thrash/speed metal explosion.
The creative freedom enjoyed by bands in the days of Queen, Sabbath, Yes, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, and so many others managed to hang on in certain sectors of the music business until perhaps the mid-1990s or so–when radio began its most extreme phase of consolidation yet, even as the last of the major record labels got sucked into the bowels of giant corporations and so-called “alternative” music became just another marketing term.
These days, bands don’t form organically most of the time or even write their own songs; they’re assembled from parts, with the marginally talented singer in some regionally successful act plucked by what passes for a record label, surrounded by songwriters and session musicians, and shoved out into the world as the newest “band” that sounds like every other “band” you’ve heard in the last three years.
The songs are assembled and produced purely for radio airplay, with the same subject matter, the same production, the same general structure as every other track you heard on rock radio in the past hour. A six-minute tune with an opera in the middle? I doubt even Tool–one of the last holdouts able to get songs more than four minutes in length on the radio, at least back in 2006 when their last LP came out–would be able to push “Bohemian Rhapsody” across the finish line these days.
Perhaps this sounds like the complaining of an older person, “music was better back in my day,” but there’s a reason why “Bohemian Rhapsody” has lasted 40 years and two generations, while most of the hits streaming on Spotify today will be long forgotten half a decade from now, let alone four. Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie, touches on that reason (as have other movies, like Almost Famous and Velvet Goldmine), but you’d probably need a whole film, or perhaps a miniseries, to truly delve into one of the most fertile and rich periods in the history of rock music.