Hello there! This is another entry in our blog series Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies. In these posts, we review a rock and roll tune that features prominently in a film.
This week’s entry is Bohemian Rhapsody. This is an epic operatic rock song by Queen that was featured in the 1992 movie Wayne’s World. We will then discuss a cover of that song by Elton John and Axl Rose.
Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody:
We previously discussed the group Queen in a blog post on their song Somebody To Love. So here we will briefly review the history of that pop band.
Queen was a British quartet that assembled in London in the early 70s. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor met up with vocalist Farrokh Bulsara; after trying out several bass players, the group settled on John Deacon. At that point Bulsara changed his name to Freddie Mercury, and the band adopted the name Queen.
In 1973, the band signed a record contract with Trident/EMI. This was a great opportunity for the band, as Trident Studios had high-tech facilities that had been used by the Beatles and Elton John, among others.
Below is a group portrait of Queen in 1976. From L: Brian May; John Deacon (standing); Roger Taylor; Freddie Mercury.Embed from Getty Images
For the next couple of years, Queen became popular in the UK but made little commercial headway in the US. All that changed dramatically with the release of the group’s fourth album, A Night At the Opera, in 1975.
That album, titled after a Marx Brothers’ movie, contained the song Bohemian Rhapsody. A daring and amazing tour de force, it was a pop tune written in operatic style.
The song begins with Freddie Mercury’s slow and sweet vocals, accompanying himself on piano. The singer professes that he has an easygoing carefree nature.
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I’m easy come, easy go,
Little high, little low,
Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me, to me.
However, he next confesses that he has shot a man to death, and is terrified of what lies ahead for him.
Mama, ooh (any way the wind blows),
I don’t wanna die,
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.
The song then shifts tone abruptly. It simulates a large opera chorus, and also parodies the interchanges that take place in operatic arias.
I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?
Thunderbolt and lightning,
Very, very frightening me.
Bohemian Rhapsody ends with another slow, melodic solo by Freddie Mercury.
With this tune, before you could say “Beelzebub!” the group’s fame spread across the globe.
The incredible sounds produced on Bohemian Rhapsody were a combination of massive overdubbing by the members of the band (to simulate the sound of a large operatic chorus), combined with special effects from Brian May’s home-made Red Special guitar.
Let me interject a few words about the life and career of Queen guitarist Brian May. A rock musician with a doctorate in astrophysics and a book on the history of the universe? And in addition, he served as Chancellor of a British university — what an amazing fellow!
When I first heard Queen performing Bohemian Rhapsody, I thought: “What a novel concept and a stunning record. Of course, they could never reproduce this in a live performance.”
To demonstrate how wrong I was, here is Queen performing Bohemian Rhapsody ‘live.’ This took place during the band’s 1986 Magic Tour.
I put ‘live’ in quotation marks because this performance contains both live and taped segments. Freddie sings the slow segments at beginning and end live. However, the middle section that simulates a massive chorus is provided in taped form from the record, along with special visual effects.
Bohemian Rhapsody has a special place in the hearts of Queen fans. It is the 3rd-best selling record ever in the U.K. In 2012, ITV conducted a UK poll of “The Nation’s Favourite Number One” song, and Bohemian Rhapsody came in #1 (!)
The song took an enormous amount of studio time, and was at the time the most expensive recording ever made. The “chorus” parts consisted of extensive overdubbing from the band members (up to 180 overdubs in some sections); May, Mercury and Taylor were singing their vocal parts for up to 10 hours a day during the recording sessions.
Record executives assured Queen that their song could not be played on commercial radio because of its nearly 6-minute length. This is exactly like the record company’s response to Bob Dylan’s epic Like A Rolling Stone.
Of course, that prediction was nullified as soon as radio DJs began to play the song. Bohemian Rhapsody rocketed up to #1 on the UK pop charts. The song was not quite as successful in the US, only reaching #9 on the Billboard lists.
Queen subsequently became pop superstars. They specialized in producing ‘rock anthems’ such as We Are The Champions and Somebody To Love. Queen filled up stadiums on their tours and their albums sold like hotcakes. Their Greatest Hits album outsold even the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper blockbuster.
However, even as their commercial success took off, Freddie Mercury’s health declined. As a youth, Mercury had several romantic relationships with women; however, he later became homosexual. In 1987 Freddie discovered that he had HIV, and around Easter of that year he had contracted AIDS.
Queen stopped touring but continued to record albums in the studio. However, as time went by Mercury’s condition worsened. He lost a considerable amount of weight and eventually became haggard, which caused a great deal of speculation regarding his health.
For some time Mercury avoided discussing his sexual orientation or health. Finally, on Nov. 22, 1991, Freddie Mercury issued a press release acknowledging that he had AIDS. Two days later, Mercury died at the age of 45 from bronchial pneumonia, brought on as a complication of AIDS.
Mercury’s death was devastating to his Queen bandmates and to his many fans. Brian May was particularly depressed as a result of his close friend’s demise. He checked himself into a clinic in Arizona, and later threw himself into various solo music projects.
Over the past 25 years, bassist John Deacon has retired. Roger Taylor and Brian May have re-united at various times, and have toured with a guest lead vocalist.
Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. With total record sales somewhere between 150 million and 300 million, they are one of the best-selling musical acts of all time. And in 2005, Brian May was named a Commander of the British Empire by the actual Queen for “services to the music industry and for charity work.”
Bohemian Rhapsody in the film Wayne’s World:
Wayne’s World was a 1992 film starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey and directed by Penelope Spheeris. This was the movie version of a popular Myers-Carvey sketch from the NBC television program Saturday Night Live.
The premise of these skits was that Wayne Campbell (Myers) and Garth Algar (Carvey) were two slackers who hosted a public-access TV show called Wayne’s World that was filmed in the basement of Campbell’s parents’ home.
Campbell and Algar were obsessed with heavy-metal rock music. Their SNL sketches began with Wayne strumming furiously (and cluelessly) on his guitar while Garth tapped away with his drumsticks, as the boys shouted out “Wayne’s World! Wayne’s World! Party time! Excellent!”
On the cable show Wayne and Garth would compare their reactions to hard-rock bands (both lads agreed that Aerosmith was their favorite band), rate the desirability of various women (or “babes”), and also introduce various fantasy sequences. Guests or rock bands would appear from time to time. The guests would frequently be insulted or subjected to boyish pranks, while bands would either be worshipped or dissed.
The SNL skits presented a sophomoric but tolerant view of two hard-rock-obsessed youths. The character treatment was similar to that in the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which came out a couple of years after the Myers-Carvey sketch debuted on SNL.
Wayne’s World was notable for introducing various catchphrases into the language. A couple of these were “Schwing” (referring to something titillating); and “Not,” inserted after a pause to negate a statement – e.g., “He is quite handsome – not.”
The film Wayne’s World simply gives us a fleshed-out narrative about these buddies.
The Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody appears at the beginning of the film. Garth picks up Wayne in his barely-functioning AMC Pacer automobile, and they drive around with two of their slacker friends while playing Bohemian Rhapsody on a cassette tape and lip-synching to the tune.
In this clip, roughly half of Bohemian Rhapsody plays while the lads cruise past various landmarks in Aurora, IL (the scene was actually filmed in West Covina, CA). Along the way they pick up their seriously drunk friend Phil.
The boys sing along to the slow, sweet portions of the tune. However, just before the 2-minute mark in this clip the thunderous chorus of Bohemian Rhapsody arrives, which leads to some strenuous head-banging. At the end of the song, the boys arrive at their local hangout, Stan Mikita’s Donuts.
Apparently Mike Myers was quite insistent that the tune Bohemian Rhapsody be included at the beginning of the movie. This was a brilliant decision, as the opening scene became a cult classic and has been parodied any number of times.
Rolling Stone magazine has an interesting article on the making of the Bohemian Rhapsody scene from Wayne’s World.
The premise of the Wayne’s World film is that sleazy producer Benjamin Oliver (Rob Lowe) agrees to purchase the rights to Wayne and Garth’s cable show for $10,000. At left is a poster for the movie.
Wayne then meets and falls for Cassandra Wong (Tia Carrere), who plays bass and sings lead vocals for a local band. However, Benjamin attempts to steal Cassandra’s affections by offering to produce a music video for her while flaunting his money and charm.
Wayne gets fired from the cable show after insulting the show’s sponsor. Jealous of Benjamin, Wayne attempts to sabotage Cassandra’s music video; this causes Cassandra to break up with him.
After a series of wacky adventures, the crew from Wayne’s World manages to hack into the satellite feed of Cassandra’s music video and broadcast it from Wayne’s basement. However, Wayne fails in his quest to obtain a record contract for Cassandra; in the film’s original ending, Cassandra rejects Wayne and departs with Benjamin for a tropical resort.
Wayne and Garth then stage an alternate ending to the movie. This bit is a parody of the Scooby-Doo TV show; in this ending, Benjamin is exposed as “Old Man Withers.”
The film’s ending is re-enacted a third and final time. In this “mega happy ending,” Cassandra returns to Wayne and signs a record contract, while Garth hooks up with a waitress.
Wayne’s World was Mike Myers’ first film, and the second SNL sketch to be turned into a movie (the first was the 1980 film The Blues Brothers starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd).
Negative critical comments about the movie generally suggested that the premise of the SNL sketch was too flimsy to support an entire movie. I have to agree with this assessment. Although the reception of film critics was mixed, the film was a box-office triumph. It had a domestic gross of over $121 million, making it the highest-grossing film of the 11 movies created from SNL sketches.
Before directing Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris had produced a number of music documentaries. Although this movie appeared to be a golden opportunity for Ms. Spheeris, apparently working with Mike Myers was no picnic. The two clashed repeatedly, and Myers is reported to have prevented Penelope from directing the sequel Wayne’s World 2.
Elton John and Axl Rose and Bohemian Rhapsody:
Following Freddie Mercury’s death, the other three members of Queen agreed to hold a memorial concert in the spring of 1992. In a previous blog post, we showed George Michael performing the song Somebody To Love with the members of Queen at this concert.
The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert was held at London’s Wembley Stadium on April 20, 1992. A poster for the concert is shown at left. The surviving three members of Queen appeared at the event, together with many of the most famous rock performers of the day.
Funds raised from the concert were used to launch the Mercury Phoenix Trust, an AIDS charity organization. An audience of 72,000 watched the live concert at Wembley; however a world-wide TV link broadcast the concert to as many as a billion people.
A number of artists performed their own songs. In addition, the members of Queen performed covers of their own songs with various guest artists.
One of the final acts in that concert was a performance of Bohemian Rhapsody by Elton John and Axl Rose, accompanied by the surviving members of Queen plus a group of guest musicians.
Below is a photo of Elton John (L) and Axl Rose performing at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.Embed from Getty Images
Elton John was a natural choice to perform here. For roughly 25 years he had been one of Britain’s most successful pop performers. His work spanned the gamut from ballads to hard-rocking tunes.
In addition, Elton had long raised funds for AIDS research, and he had shown remarkably bravery in counteracting prejudice against AIDS sufferers like Indiana’s Ryan White.
By contrast (at least in hindsight), Axl Rose seemed a curious choice for a performer at a Freddie Mercury tribute. Rose had been the leader and lead vocalist for the heavy-metal group Guns ‘n Roses, an L.A. band that were hot and influential from the mid-80s to the mid-90s.
The band combined the distinctive edgy vocals from Axl Rose with impressive guitar solos from their lead guitarist Slash. However, Guns ‘n Roses then suffered a dramatic flame-out, and the original ensemble imploded.
In later years, Axl Rose would be accused of homophobia. In a 1998 Guns ‘n Roses song called One In A Million, Rose had complained about “faggots … who spread some fucking disease.”
In the resulting controversy, Rose alluded to his claims that he had been molested by his biological father and to an attempted rape when he was in his teens. However,
The controversy led to Guns N’ Roses being dropped from the roster of an AIDS benefit show in New York organized by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
In any case, Axl Rose and Elton John, together with members of Queen, are seen here in a performance of Bohemian Rhapsody at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.
As you can see, Elton and Axl essentially reprise the Queen performance shown earlier, from their 1986 Magic Tour. The initial slow section from Bohemian Rhapsody is performed live by Elton John, as the audience sings along throughout the song.
The audio from the operatic chorus in the center section is taken from tapes of the original record, and the video is identical to that from the 1986 tour. At the 3:15 mark Axl Rose bursts onto the scene, dressed in a kilt and gyrating like a whirling dervish. It is a stunning scene and the audience goes wild. Axl and Elton then sing the final slow section of Bohemian Rhapsody.
I hope this video clip was not too repetitive, but I wanted to show the excitement and power of the Freddie Mercury tribute concert.
Wikipedia, Bohemian Rhapsody
Wikipedia, Queen (band)
Wikipedia, Freddie Mercury
Wikipedia, Brian May
Wikipedia, Wayne’s World (film)
The Oral History of the Wayne’s World Bohemian Rhapsody Scene, David Peisner, Rolling Stone magazine, Nov. 30, 2015.
Wikipedia, Elton John
Wikipedia, Axl Rose