By the early 1980s, Queen was one of the biggest stadium rock bands in the world. Their set at the 1985 Live Aid concert is basically the most significant live performance of all time. Queen meaning Roger Taylor on drums, Brian May on guitar, John Deacon on bass, and Freddie Mercury on piano and vocals. Mercury was a flamboyant showman on the stage, an inimitable presence with an incredible voice. When he died in 1991, the band more or less died with him; his bandmates were his friends, and they needed to mourn him away from the music.
I can’t remember when I was first aware of Queen because I was born into a world already obsessed with them. I remember being in my mom’s van and hearing the telltale bassline of Under Pressure and being mad, SO mad, when it turned out to be “that old song” by Queen, and not Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice, a flash in the pan hip-hop monstrosity that sampled from Queen/David Bowie without crediting them. Imagine being disappointed by Under Pressure. Imagine. I have been atoning for that musical folly ever since.
I have probably never been to a hockey game that didn’t play We Will Rock You at least 5 times. As a kid I probably thought it was specifically written for hockey. But in 1992 the band got an even bigger boost from a different Canadian export, Mike Myers. Wayne’s World was released just a few months after Mercury’s (AIDS-related) death, and the studio begged Myers to go with a Guns N Roses instead, but Myers was insistent. The film propelled Bohemian Rhapsody to #2 on the charts 17 years after its first release. Mercury saw the head banging scene before his death, found it hilarious, and approved the song for the film’s use. It was a nice way for new fans and old fans to appreciate Queen once again. Just two months later, in April 1992, the remaining Queen members put on a benefit, The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, to which 1.2 billion viewers tuned in (they made the Guinness Book of Records!). Performers including Robert Plant, Elton John, Annie Lennox, George Michael, and David Bowie performed alongside the original members, and they raised over £20M for AIDS charities.
This would prove a wise and prophetic move: Queen never tried to replace the irreplaceable Freddie Mercury. When they were ready to perform again, they performed as Queen + ________. John Deacon retired in 1997, but a new Greatest Hits (III) album was released in 1999, Queen + Wyclef Jean on Another One Bites the Dust, George Michael on Somebody to Love, and Elton John on The Show Must Go On (among others). And beginning in 2005, they toured + Paul Rodgers. Fans could enjoy the music they loved without feeling their Mercury had been replaced. May and Taylor could play again, in tribute to their friend of course, but also because this was their music too, their passion.
In 2011, Queen began playing with American Idol loser, Adam Lambert (that year’s winner, Kris Allen, has long since been forgotten – the show has a pretty crummy record: out of 17 seasons, only 2 early winners ever had any lasting success, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood). But Queen knew a winner when it saw one.
This documentary covers a lot of ground. A LOT. But it’s Queen, so let’s gobble it up. And it’s kind of cool that this iconic band, now consisting of two aging rock stars, can see in Lambert a little bit of their old friend. Adam Lambert is himself a flamboyant showman, but he doesn’t invite comparison to Mercury, which is what makes this union work. He is a confident performer in his own right, and May and Taylor seem re-energized in rediscovering their old hits with him, old hits that, like me, Lambert has grown up just knowing. And though he’s also passionate about his solo work, Lambert knows what a huge opportunity this is, how lucky he is to perform to arenas filled with people. But most of all, it’s just cool to see how things have changed, from Freddie Mercury’s deathbed confession of AIDS, to Lambert being able to perform as an openly gay man. Many great bands continue to tour long past their prime, eventually becoming a sort of cover band of themselves. Queen, however, has lasted because it’s been open to change, it has evolved. They never wallpapered over their past. They knew they had a once in a lifetime thing with Freddie, but they also admit they’ve somehow found it again with Lambert.
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