The relationship between the music of the English rock band Queen and the other visual media is quite complex and can be analysed following different paths.
The iconography of the group spans several media and forms of communication, with the aim to increase the dramatic impact of the performance or the dramatic impact of the image of the band itself.
Several arguments can be traced in this article:
- Relationship with movies: the soundtracks for Flash Gordon and Highlander
- Relationship with videogames: the soundtrack of The eYe
- Relationship with the musical: the development of the show We Will Rock You
Flash Gordon (1980)
One main direction for Queen started in 1980 with the soundtrack of the movie Flash Gordon, for which the rock band wrote the music mixing together the sounds of synthesizers and orchestra giving the movie and the score a similarity with a classical opera for the general conception and the proportions of the musical score (and this unusual use of electronic instruments anticipate the Freddie Mercury’s “BARCELONA” solo album from 1987).
Besides that, the use of the leitmotiv recalls the Wagner’s revolutionary idea to connect the music and the character in order to underline some specific dramatic situations during the plot (and another reference to the German composer is the use in the movie of the bridal chorus from the opera Lohengrin but rearranged for electric guitar).
At least 3 main themes, connected to the movie characters, can be found: Flash theme, Ming’s theme and Vultan’s theme. And to these we must add the Love theme and the Battle theme that will have a reprise too during the plot. This approach is not new in movies’ soundtracks, and one of the best examples of using repeated themes associated with characters or peculiar situations can be already found in the Star Wars trilogy thanks to the music of John Williams.
In Flash Gordon the musical themes are always simple, but this detail help to better recognize and memorize them by the viewer. For example, the Ming’s Theme written by Mercury is short and plain even with the use of some chromatic notes:
In Football Fight the use of an ascending scale at the end of the musical phrase is opposed to the previous example where a descending chromatic scale is linked to Ming’s character:
One of the best musical piece of the entire Flash Gordon soundtrack is undoubtedly the short fragment (less than 2 minutes in total) called The Kiss. Written by Freddie Mercury, it is characterized by high notes similar to a something ethereal: no clear words are sung, only short segments that seem a breath, similar to what happens on the screen where the main character Flash comes back to life after receiving the kiss of the title by the princess Aura:
The use of electronic instruments (something unusual for Queen that started using them in the previous album “THE GAME”) gives the movie a clear musical direction, so in this case the music shapes the final perception of the movie itself. In fact, even in the Star Wars movie trilogy some special effects were obtained with the use of synths, and therefore this kind of instrument has been connected with sci-fi movies since then. The first example of an electronic instrument used in this context is the theremin in the movie The day the earth stood still (1951); in the movie Forbidden planet (1956) the soundtrack consisted entirely of electronic sounds: the use of the instrument begat our fascination with representing the otherworldly (i.e., aliens, UFOs, and other extraterrestrial concepts) with markedly otherworldly sounds.
Queen music is in this project mainly instrumental, and a classical orchestral arrangement (by Howard Blake) can be heard all over the movie. Only two complete songs with lyrics (Flash and The Hero) are part of this original soundtrack and can be heard during opening and credit titles, so they create a frame at the beginning and at the end of the movie. The presence of music increases during the movie following the dramatic path of the story itself: in this case music empathizes what can be seen on the screen.
The tracklist for the entire soundtrack is the following:
In the Space Capsule (The Love Theme)
Ming’s Theme (In the Court of Ming the Merciless)
The Ring (Hypnotic Seduction of Dale)
In the Death Cell (Love Theme Reprise)
Execution of Flash
The Kiss (Aura Resurrects Flash)
Arboria (Planet of the Tree Men)
Escape from the Swamp
Flash to the Rescue
Vultan’s Theme (Attack of the Hawk Men)
The Wedding March
Marriage of Dale and Ming (…And Flash Approaching)
Crash Dive on Mingo City
Flash’s Theme Reprise (Victory Celebrations)
In the 1970s, several noted directors attempted to make a film of the story from the original comic strips. Federico Fellini optioned the Flash Gordon rights from Dino De Laurentiis, but never made the film. George Lucas also attempted to make a Flash Gordon film in the 1970s. However, Lucas was unable to acquire the rights from De Laurentiis, so he decided to create Star Wars instead. De Laurentiis also discussed hiring Sergio Leone to helm the Flash Gordon film; Leone declined because he believed the script was not faithful to the original Raymond comic strips. Finally, the Italian producer hired Mike Hodges to direct the Flash Gordon film.
Hodges’ 1980 Flash Gordon film stars former Playgirl-centerfold Sam J. Jones in the title role. Its plot is based loosely on the first few years of the comic strip, revising Flash’s backstory by making him the quarterback of the New York Jets instead of a polo player. Raymond’s drawings feature heavily in the opening credits, as does the signature theme-song Flash by Queen, who composed and performed the entire musical score with some additional orchestral arrangements by composer Howard Blake.
The Flash OST is a bizarre and hypnotic work when considered in isolation, well worthy of stoner devotion reserved for the likes of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn or the cool, modern appreciation of Morricone. It bleeds atmosphere and poise, but is not adverse to hilarity, even becoming hysterical at some points. A fine blend that is never too self-conscious or over-complicated. But married to the images that Mike Hodges provides, the work becomes an accomplished, slick and instinctive whole. Beginning with the main musical themes and continuing through similarities to operatic convention, it is a cohesive whole. (Daniel Ross – https://thequietus.com)
I’m VERY proud of our music for the Battle Sequence… it’s all very fresh on my mind… it was totally thrown together in the old-fashioned way… playing TO PICTURE – and there was a moment when, left carrying the can… because Queen was actually busy making another album at the same time)… I got on a roll with the Hawkmen and their rescue attack… I could still ‘sing’ you that whole sequence… to me it’s totally a song. I’ll add a couple of interesting (perhaps) facts. This was the first time that we, as a band, recorded with synthesisers (previously we always had the declaration on our album sleeves “No Synthesisers”). And I believe that this really is the first time that a proper score, to something other than a story about musicians, was ever applied to a film by a rock band. It’s very common now, but I remember having a conversation with the amazing producer of this film, Dino de Laurentiis, early on in the relationship… wherein he said… “The score of my movie cannot be rock music… it has never been done” And I said… “but it COULD be done”. (Brian May – https://brianmay.com)
The original Flash videoclip was filmed at Anvil Studios, London, in November 1980 and was directed by Don Norman. It shows the band performing the song to a screen showing clips from the film in an iconographic short circuit where musci and images merge together. It’s remarkable to notice that Brian May is playing in this videoclip an Oberheim OBX synthesiser, the same electronic instrument used in the movie soundtrack both for music and special effects.
To promote the movie Freddie Mercury wore a Flash theme-based t-shirt during concerts of the period; in live shows only Flash, The Hero and The Battle Theme were played because they were tracks more suitable for a live set.
Several remixes of the song Flash were produced in 2002 with German producers Vanguard, mainly for dance and club charts.
Six years later Queen decided to write the music for another movie, the sci-fi Highlander. This time, they preferred focusing on more standard songs-form structure, but they were strongly influenced by the story itself and its characters and therefore the soundtrack keeps these elements and gives them new form: even in this case the collaboration with the movie director was a central point and it will go on in videoclips too, that are strongly related to the movie general atmosphere and elements (for example the video for Princes of the Universe).
Song structure is here classic, unlike from what happened in the previous Flash Gordon and long songs (with lyrics) can be heard several times during the movie: the presence of the music is constant, and the lyrics help to better understand what’s going on and suggest the character’s emotions underling the turning points in the plot. Having worked with director, Queen have been able to create specific songs that recall the atmosphere of the movie (A Kind Of Magic, Princes Of The Universe, Don’t Lose Your Head) and that can underline the characters’ feelings (Who Wants To Live Forever, One Year Of Love).
The songs of the original soundtrack have been released in the “A KIND OF MAGIC” album from 1986 (even if some versions on the album are different from the movie extracts). The tracklist is the following:
A Kind of Magic
One Year of Love
Pain Is So Close to Pleasure
Friends Will Be Friends
Who Wants to Live Forever
Gimme the Prize
Don’t Lose Your Head
Princes of the Universe
Highlander is directed by Russell Mulcahy and based on a story by Gregory Widen. It stars Christopher Lambert, Roxanne Hart, Clancy Brown, and Sean Connery. The film chronicles the climax of an ages-old war between immortal warriors, depicted through interwoven past and present-day storylines.
Highlander enjoyed little success on its initial theatrical release, grossing over $12 million worldwide against a production budget of $19 million, and received mixed reviews. Nevertheless, it became a cult film and inspired film sequels and television spin-offs (where Princes Of The Universe is used for the title sequence in the television series). The tagline, “There can be only one”, has carried on into pop culture.
Queen’s songs take the preposterous, bloated concept and elevate it into ever-more-preposterous, ever-more-bloated grandeur. Connor watches his lover age in their craggy Highland home and buries her as Freddie Mercury operatically blasts the heather with the stentorian operatic anguish of ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ – bolstered by string arrangements from soundtrack collaborator Michael Kamen. The proggy, heavy ‘Princes of the Universe’ gives even the text of the opening credits a surging drama. “Here we are, born to be kings/We’re the princes of the universe!” The chords continue into the opening scene, where Connor sits in contemporary Madison Square Garden, watching hairy, bear-chested, spandex-clad wrestlers wriggle their fingers and hips flirtatiously before they bash together in sweaty struggle. (Noah Berlatsky – https://www.syfy.com)
The relationship between Highlander and the band is even more complex, due to the fact that for many vinyls singles the characters of the movie were chosen for the front covers instead of the band members. This option in the Queen iconography is another step in the direction of merging the music and the images that is something peculiar for the English rock band.
The collaboration with the Highlander movie director Russell Mulcahy was so deep that he directed the music videoclip for Princes Of The Universe. This videoclip was shot on 14 February 1986 at Elstree Studios, London, on the Silvercup rooftop stage used for the film. It consists mostly of Queen performing the song, intercut with scenes from Highlander. Christopher Lambert reprises his role as Connor MacLeod for a brief appearance in the video, where he swordfights Freddie Mercury, who uses his microphone stand as a sword. Brian May is seen playing a Washburn RR11V instead of his usual Red Special.
Again, the connection between movie, music and images is merged in an intense exchange of mutual ideas that can be fit in any media of the franchise, and this helps to create an organic and coherent universe where the single element can be moved and still retain its influence and logical.
Flash Gordon and Highlander: the Comparison
The following table shows side by side the main differences of the two movies, underlining the different approach of the band and the similarities in the creative process too.
|Flash Gordon (1980)||Highlander (1986)|
|Music is mainly instrumental||Music is made by sung tracks|
|An open orchestral structure can be heard all the time||Song structure is classic|
|Short musical segments repeated as Wagner’s leimotif when the main character (Flash Gordon) takes actions||Long complete songs|
|Only 2 complete songs at the beginning (opening titles) and at the end (credits titles) of the movie||Complete songs along all the movie|
|Additional orchestral arrangements by Howard Blake||Additional orchestral arrangements by Michael Kamen|
|The presence of music increases during the movie following the dramatic path of the story itself: in this case music emphasises what can be seen on the screen||The presence of the music is constant during the movie and the lyrics help to better understand what’s going on|
|Music created by synths is used often as special effect and underlines the movie’s fiction atmosphere||Music is never used as a special effect|
|Wagner’s bridal chorus from opera Lohengrin is played by Brian May on guitar||A cover of New York, New York by Liza Minnelli is sung by Freddie Mercury|
Queen and his solo members collaborated during their career in many other soundtracks for movies or musicals, but never in a deep way such as for the Flash Gordon and Highlander projects, since they were not involved and collaborated with directors from the beginning of the movie itself.
In these examples, they wrote music (mainly one track per movie) and the soundtrack were often a collaboration with other artists, or their tracks were used for a movie, even if the music wasn’t originally conceived for that particular project.
This kind of soundtracks is the most frequent collaboration used nowadays in movies, where a classical orchestral composition is combined with music from other artists, mainly from rock and pop culture.
Some of the other projects were the following:
- Metropolis (1984). Freddie Mercury wrote the song Love Kills
- Zabou (1986). Freddie Mercury wrote the song Hold On for the movie
- Biggles (1986). John Deacon wrote the song No Turning Back
- Time (1986). Freddie Mercury wrote the song Time for the Dave Clark’s musical
- Night And The City (1992). The soundtrack contains the Freddie Mercury’s cover of the classic song The Great Pretender
- The Amazing Spider Man (1994). Brian May wrote the main theme of the movie
- Small Soldiers (1998). A remix of the song Another One Bites The Dust was recorded with the rapper Wyclef Jean
- Furia (1999). Brian May wrote the soundtrack
- A Knight’s Tale (2001). Queen collaborated with the songs We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions (newly recorded with Robbie Williams)
In 1998 the English group decided to give their music a new life bringing it to a videogame, for the project called The eYe: this time the original Queen songs were newly mixed in order to achieve a better integration with the action-adventure electronic videogame structure, focusing mainly on music and disregarding the lyrics. We have in this way new versions of well-known songs that focus mainly on music and without the voices several instrumental details can be heard for the very first time: songs are heard in a new way leaving the listener the focus on the game instead of on lyrics. This doesn’t mean music is merely a background because the integrations with the game and with Queen iconography is deep.
Even the structure of the songs themselves changed to better meet the needs of the new media (several songs can be heard in a loop circle): this can be read as new possibility of the music that shapes itself accordingly to the final media in which it will be used, in a challenging transformation that is deeply connected with a new aesthetic never seen before.
The eYe was released by Electronic Arts on 5 discs (called “The Arena Domain”, “The Works Domain”, “The Theatre Domain”, “The Innuendo Domain” and “The Final Domain”), and featured music remixed by the producer Joshua J. Macrae at Roger Taylor’s studio in Surrey.
The game is set in the future where the world is ruled by an all-seeing machine called “The eYe” which has eradicated everything that promotes creative expression. The player takes the role of Dubroc, a secret agent of The eYe who in the course of his duties has re-discovered a database of popular rock music, and is sentenced to death in “The Arena”, a live television show broadcast through satellites to the world in which the contestant battles fighting arena champions called the Watchers. From there Dubroc goes on a quest to destroy The eYe, a sort of Orwell’s “Big Brother”.
Many elements of the story were later adapted into the Queen musical We Will Rock You: so we can see another clear example of how their music could be shaped for different artistic products, from movies to videogames and musical too.
The soundtrack for the game The eYe has never been officially published. Divided in 5 discs, the tracklist is the following:
Disc 1 – The Arena Domain
Made in Heaven (loop)
I Want It All (instrumental, remix)
Dragon Attack (instrumental, remix)
Fight From The Inside (instrumental)
Hang On In There (intro)
In The Lap of the Gods… Revisited (edit, vocals)
Modern Times Rock’n’Roll (instrumental)
More Of That Jazz (instrumental)
We Will Rock You (commentary mix)
The Night Comes Down (intro)
Chinese Torture (usual version)
I Want It All (instrumental, remix)
Disc 2 – The Works Domain
Mustapha (intro, vocals)
Mother Love (instrumental)
You Take My Breath Away (instrumental)
One Vision (intro)
Sweet Lady (edit, vocals)
Was It All Worth It (instrumental, edit)
Get Down, Make Love (instrumental, remix)
Heaven For Everyone (instrumental)
Hammer To Fall (instrumental)
Tie Your Mother Down (intro)
One Vision (instrumental, remix)
It’s Late (edit, vocals)
Procession (usual version)
Made in Heaven (instrumental, remix)
Disc 3 – The Theatre Domain
It’s A Beautiful Day (remix)
Don’t Lose Your Head (instrumental)
Princes Of The Universe (instrumental, remix)
A Kind Of Magic (instrumental)
Gimme The Prize (remix, vocals)
Bring Back That Leroy Brown (edit, vocals)
Ha Ha Ha, It’s Magic! (vocal sample)
You Don’t Fool Me (instrumental)
Let Me Entertain You (instrumental, intro)
Khashoggi’s Ship (instrumental)
Forever (usual version)
Don’t Try So Hard (edit, vocals)
Was It All Worth It (intro)
Disc 4 – The Innuendo Domain
Brighton Rock (intro)
I’m Going Slightly Mad (instrumental)
Bijou (instrumental, edit)
Khashoggi’s Ship (instrumental)
The Show Must Go On (instrumental, remix)
The Hitman (instrumental, edit)
Too Much Love Will Kill You (edit, vocals)
I Can’t Live With You (instrumental, remix)
Love Of My Life (harp intro only)
Disc 5 – The Final Domain
Death On Two Legs (intro)
Death On Two Legs (instrumental)
Ride The Wild Wind (instrumental, remix)
Hammer To Fall (instrumental)
Gimme The Prize (instrumental, remix)
The Hitman (instrumental, remix)
Don’t Lose Your Head (usual version)
Gimme The Prize (vocals, remix)
We Will Rock You: The Musical
We Will Rock You (often abbreviated as WWRY) is a jukebox musical based on the songs of British rock band Queen with a book by Ben Elton. The musical tells the story of a group of Bohemians who struggle to restore the free exchange of thought and fashion, and live music in a distant future where everyone dresses, thinks and acts the same. Musical instruments and composers are forbidden, and rock music is all but unknown.
Directed by Christopher Renshaw and choreographed by Arlene Phillips, the original West End production opened at the Dominion Theatre on 14 May 2002, with Tony Vincent, Hannah Jane Fox, Sharon D. Clarke and Kerry Ellis in principal roles. Although the musical was at first panned by critics, it has become an audience favourite, becoming the longest-running musical at the Dominion Theatre, celebrating its tenth anniversary on 14 May 2012.
The eleventh longest-running musical in West End history, the London production closed on 31 May 2014 after a final performance in which Brian May and Roger Taylor both performed. A number of international productions have since followed the original, and We Will Rock You has been seen in six of the world’s continents. Many productions are still active globally.
According to Brian May, Queen’s manager Jim Beach had spoken with the band about creating a jukebox musical with Queen’s songs since the mid-1990s. Initially, the intent was to create a biographical story of Freddie Mercury. About this time, Robert De Niro’s production company Tribeca Productions expressed interest in a Queen musical, but it found the original idea difficult to work with.
In 2000, Ben Elton was approached to start talks with May and Taylor on the project. He suggested taking the musical down a different path than initially imagined, creating an original story that would capture the spirit of much of their music. He worked closely with May and Taylor to incorporate Queen’s songs into the story. Elton has also stated that he was in part inspired by the computer-controlled dystopia of the 1999 science-fiction film The Matrix. The script was eventually completed midway through 2001.
Queen music is shaped in a new form again for this kind of media and show and the story itself, with some elements taken from the game The eYe, is deeply connected to the characters originally present in the songs’ lyrics: Galileo (from Bohemian Rhapsody), Killer Queen (from the song Killer Queen), the Gaga kids (Radio Gaga), Khashoggi (Khashoggi’s ship) and so on. Again, the music reinvents and reimagines itself breaking the rules of musical genres and breathing a new life.
Regarding the details of soundtracks, Queen wrote for the mentioned two sci-fi movies following a particular principle: if usually when movie choose a rock group or artist to write a soundtrack, it is mainly a single track that can be heard at the end credits. But for Queen the process is more articulated and deeper: they wrote many songs that were used during all the movies, and their music is merged with the more classic orchestral scores composed by Howard Blake (for Flash Gordon) and Michael Kamen (for Highlander).
Therefore, the relationship with movies if far more complex and vivid than in other examples we may find in recent soundtracks. Queen had the possibility to follow the script and the shootings and, in that way, they could create a music that better merge with images, since it was created together and not simply just added later: this idea gives the whole project an internal structure and coherence that still keep it valid after several years.
© Nicola Bizzo