Despite being fraught with production difficulties, an absent director, and a critical quibbling over its sexuality politics, Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of Freddie Mercury and Queen, has been doing very well at the box office. And though it has thrust Queen’s music back into the spotlight, has it even really gone away?
The song itself, the 6 minute epic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” was the top of the UK singles charts for nine weeks upon its release and hasn’t been forgotten since. It’s part of our collective DNA, but with a certain caveat...it’s notoriously difficult to cover. It is so finely constructed that it can’t be deconstructed, leaving artists to stand in the shadow of Mercury’s delivery. Brian May, in the above video, gives credit to Axl Rose for getting close to the powerful high registers of Mercury, but even that was a kind of karaoke. And let’s not even talk about Kanye West’s stab at it.
So it’s a good time to check in with this 45 minute-long mini-doc on the making of the song, which took the band into the stratosphere. Produced in 2002 for the band’s Greatest Hits DVD, it features guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor. The first part is on the writing of the song, the second part on the making of the music video, and the third, the bulk of the doc, on the production.
Don’t expect any explanation of the subject matter of the song--as May says, Mercury would have shrugged off any interpretation and dismissed any search for depth. And while Mercury always took care over his lyrics, the power is all there in the music.
As for the video, that came about from necessity, as the band wanted to be on Top of the Pops and tour at the same time. By using their rehearsal stage at Elstree studios for the performance footage and a side area for the choral/close-up segments, they made a strangely iconic video. (Who doesn’t think of Queen’s four members arranged in a diamond when those vocals start up?). The two main effects were a prism lens on the camera and video feedback, all done live.
The last part is fascinating and a deep dive into the mix. Brian May, alongside studio engineer Justin Shirley Smith, play just the piano, bass, and drums from the song at first. Mercury was a self-taught pianist who played “like a drummer,” with a metronome in his head, says May.
The guitarist also isolates his various guitar parts, including the harmonics during the opening ballad portion, the “shivers down my spine” sound made by scraping the strings, and the famous solo, which he wrote as a counterpoint to Mercury’s melody. It’s geekery of the highest order, but it’s for a song that deserves such attention.
Inside The Rhapsody will be added to our collection of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.