"Everything is as it should be."

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Queen - The Forum: A Review

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QUEEN WITH ADAM LAMBERT - THE FORUM - JULY 19, 2019

Last Friday, July 19th, I continued my year of living musically by diving into the nostalgia pool to see Queen with Adam Lambert at The Forum. Queen are rock royalty from the 1970’s and 80’s which are currently comprised of two pivotal members from their original lineup, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, as well as new editions Adam Lambert (lead vocals), Spike Edney (keyboards), Neil Fairclough (bass) and Tyler Warren (percussion).

Like most rock fans of my generation (Gen X), I grew up with Queen being in heavy rotation on the soundtrack of my life, but unlike many of my friends I never really got into them like I did other bands from the era. I certainly recognized their genius, and Freddie Mercury’s astounding vocal abilities, but I just never became a super fan. For instance, I have never bought a Queen album…and it wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I actually possessed a Queen album when I got their three greatest hits compilations for free.

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As much as I liked Queen’s songs, and I did like them a lot, in my eyes Queen was sort of a second level band from the second wave of the British Invasion. To me Queen existed, along with everyone else in the 1970’s, in Led Zeppelin’s long and dark shadow. As my musician friend Steam Roller Johnny once aptly said of Queen, “listening to Queen is like eating an ice cream sundae, it is delicious but it isn’t something you can eat all the time”. Even though that assessment seems spot on, there really isn’t any good reason I can conjure that I haven’t been a bigger Queen fan in my teenage and adult years.

When I saw Bohemian Rhapsody in the movie theatre last year I thought the film was pretty average fare that shed no new light on Queen or Mercury. That said, the thing that jumped out to me was the final fifteen minutes of the movie that showed Queen playing Live Aid. That sequence was electrifying and it sent me to the internet to find more live Queen. After devouring what seemed like hours of footage, I was left in awe of the band’s power and live presence.

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Coincidentally…or more likely not…shortly after Bohemian Rhapsody got attention in movie theatres and at the Academy Awards, Queen announced a tour. Freddie Mercury has been dead for nearly thirty years, but the Queen machine has not stopped touring over the decades and cashing in on rock fan’s nostalgic impulses. The problem for Queen has always been…how do you replace Freddie Mercury, one of the greatest singers in rock history? From 2004-2009 Queen successfully went with the substantial and formidable talents of former Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers as their lead singer. Rodgers is a stellar blues/rock singer in his own right, and even though his vocals are markedly different in almost every way from Mercury’s, the merger could be deemed to have been fruitful.

In 2014 Queen did a world tour with American Idol alum Adam Lambert as Mercury’s stand in. I was dubious of Lambert’s ability to go from a cavity inducing pop-star wannabe to a front man of one of the handful of great rock bands in the history of the genre. I asked my buddy and all around musical encyclopedia, music aficionado and Queen fanatic Red Dragon, if Queen with Adam Lambert was worth seeing. Dragon has seen the band many times, the most recent being with Lambert at the helm a few years ago. Dragon gave two vociferous thumbs up on Queen with Adam Lambert. That was good enough for me…so I bought the tickets the day they went on sale.

I’ve been to The Forum a few times to see concerts and it is a really great venue. While the nosebleed seats can be problematic due to acoustic issues, everywhere else in the building is a pretty good seat. Our seats were mid-arena and gave us a solid view of the festivities.

The crowd was, not surprisingly, mostly middle-aged or older. There were some younger people, and even families with young kids, but all the place there were white-haired, beer-bellied fellas and heavily made-up, fat-bottomed aging ladies squeezed into age-inappropriate tart attire. As I made my way up the stairs to my seats, I got stuck behind not one, but two, older folks trying to navigate the stairs with their canes. A women in front of me apologized for her lethargic pace and said mournfully, “it sucks getting old”. While it seemed at the time that truer words were never spoken, I would bet Freddie Mercury might argue that getting old beats the alternative. I later saw three more older folks being assisted up the stairs, to their seats, one was equipped with a full walker….a truer metaphor for the state of rock and roll could not be found.

There was no opening act so, in accordance with the band’s instructions, we arrived promptly at 7:45 for what was supposed to be an 8:00 show. The band did not go on until 8:30 but no one seemed to be any worse for wear from the delay.

Queen hit the stage with all the grandiosity you’d expect from rock royalty and the crowd erupted as they played the aptly titled “Now I’m Here”. The thing that struck me from the get go was that the band and Adam Lambert are very keen to respect Freddie Mercury and his fans. For the first four songs it was guitarist Brian May who stood at center stage in the spotlight, not lead singer Lambert.

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It wasn’t until there was a brief break in the action where Lambert addressed the audience that he took a more pronounced role. During this break Lambert spoke to the crowd and mentioned the “pink elephant” in the room…namely that he was here and Freddie wasn’t. He assured the audience that he wasn’t here to replace Freddie because no one could replace Freddie. He was, just like everyone in the crowd, here to honor Freddie and his legacy. The band then kicked into a scathing version of “Killer Queen” with Lambert taking over the spotlight.

Lambert graciously and wisely embraces his role as substitute and surrogate Freddie, and his gratitude and undeniable cheeky energy are contagious as the audience not only welcomes him into the role but actively roots for him to succeed. Lambert has landed the sweetest karaoke gig on the planet and he knows it. He plays his role with aplomb and even though he constantly defers to May and Taylor throughout the show, he is able to a cohesive and quality front man in his own right.

Lambert is a fantastic singer and his voice is well suited for Queen’s catalogue. There was a palpable sense throughout the arena of people being awed by Lambert’s vocal prowess and you could feel people being more and more impressed by his singing as the night wore on.

While Lambert has a remarkable voice…Freddie was a remarkable singer. For all of Mercury’s vocal gymnastics, what made him so amazing was that his voice’s foundational power was in the lower register…and from there his astounding range took off. Lambert’s vocal power is found in his higher register, which is pretty amazing to behold but does alter the songs a bit and turns a gutteral connection with the material into, dare I say, a Broadway-esque, performance of the songs. In comparing it to dance, Freddie Mercury was Gene Kelly, who hit the bottom of the note hard, while Adam Lambert is Fred Astaire hitting the top of the note loudly but gently.

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The “pink elephant” Lambert refers to is not just Freddie’s absence but the thing that he and Lambert have in common…namely their homosexuality. Freddie Mercury was gay…but Adam Lambert is super gay. If Freddie Mercury were alive to watch Adam Lambert perform he’d say, “I’m gay…but wow…that guy is REALLY gay”. To Lambert’s great credit he is unapologetically gay and people love him for it. I couldn’t help but think about the middle-aged and older people in the crowd who were swooning with every prance and preen of Lambert’s, and that in their lifetime homosexuality has gone from being shamed and marginalized to being celebrated.

It was also a striking sign of the total victory in the culture wars that one of Lambert’s great weaknesses as a front man is that he is so painfully safe. Lambert’s campiness is more akin to Liberace than it is to Freddie Mercury. Freddie was, at his core, a freak…a freak vocalist, a freak songwriter, a freak character…Freddie was aggressively a freak…it is what made him so deliciously Freddie Mercury. Adam Lambert is a nice kid with a great voice who gets a little sassy sometimes.

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Brian May proved himself to still be among the rock guitar gods with his performance on the 19th, which was his 72nd birthday. May’s playing was precise and crisp, chock full of power and bombast. His voice has held up quite well too, as he sang acoustic version of “Love of My Life” and “‘39”. it was during this quieter section of the show that the audience spontaneously serenaded the appreciative septuagenarian with a hearty ‘Happy Birthday”.

Roger Taylor’s voice has held up pretty well too as he belted out solid version of “I’m In Love With My Car” and the Bowie parts of “Under Pressure”. Taylor’s drumming is another subject altogether and he has definitely lost a step. To his credit he accepts this fact and is very well aided by a Tyler Warren, who is the second drummer who covers for any weak spots in his drumming game. The Warren is a whirling dervish who works his ass off in the shadows to keep the Queen machine rolling.

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The highlights of the show were Killer Queen and Fat Bottomed Girls, the rendition of which really kicked the show into high gear, as well as exquisite back to back versions of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Under Pressure”. The crowd was in a state of orgasmic delirium for the show’s climax of “Another One Bites the Dust”, “Radio Ga Ga” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which features a vocal cameo by Freddie Mercury and younger Queen) which led into an encore that opened with a digital Freddie mercury playing “Ay-oh” with the crowd and then erupted into “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions”.

Overall, the Queen with Adam Lambert experience was a contagiously joyful one from start to finish. From Queen’s terrific catalogue of songs to Brian May’s guitar virtuosity to Adam Lambert’s sterling vocals and welcoming presence, the entire night felt like a fitting tribute to Freddie Mercury in every single way, and I think would have made the original King of Queen very proud.

If you are a Queen fan then you really should go see them as they are worth every penny. If, like me you are a marginal fan (or a new fan), I highly recommend you pull the trigger and spend the money to see them when they come to your town because, while they made good on their promise of ‘we will rock you’, and proved that that they really are the champions, they are getting long in the tooth and there is no telling when another one will bite the dust.

SET LIST

Now I’m Here

Seven Seas of Rhye

Keep Yourself Alive

Hammer to Fall

Killer Queen

Don’t Stop Me Now

In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited

Somebody to Love

The Show Must Go On

I’m in Love With My Car

Bicycle Race

Fat Bottomed Girls

Machines (or Back to Humans)

I Want It All

Love of My Life

‘39

Happy Birthday

Doing All Right

Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Under Pressure

I Want to Break Free

You Take My Breath Away

Who Wants to Live Forever

Last Horizon

Guitar Solo

Tie Your Mother Down

Dragon Attack

Another One Bites the Dust

Radio Ga Ga

Bohemian Rhapsody

ENCORE

Ay-Oh

We Will Rock You

We Are the Champions

©2019

Bohemian Rhapsody: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. If you are a cinephile looking for great cinema, look somewhere else, but if you are a Queen fan looking for some mindless fun, this is the movie for you.

Bohemian Rhapsody, written by Antony McCarten and (sort of) directed by Bryan Singer, is the story of Freddie Mercury, the iconic lead singer of the band Queen, and his rise to the top of the rock world and his struggles once he got there. The film stars Rami Malek as Mercury, with supporting turns from Lucy Boynton, Gwylim Lee and Ben Hardy.

This past Tuesday, after doing my civic duty and voting to Make America Great Again in the morning, I had my entire afternoon free, so I ventured down to the local cineplex to check out Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury bio-pic.

Mercury’s band Queen, is, in my not so humble opinion, not the greatest rock band of all-time, but it is in the neighborhood. They aren’t The Beatles, Stones or Led Zeppelin, but they are more The Doors, The Who and Pink Floyd adjacent. While I am not a Queen super fan, I do enjoy the band and consider Freddie Mercury to be the greatest singer in the history of rock and one of the most original front men to boot.

Mercury is a fascinating figure who took the androgynous pose of the likes of Jaggar, Bowie. and Plant and turned it up to 11, becoming a closeted but widely acknowledged gay rock star when being gay was not so warmly embraced as it is now.

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What made Mercury and Queen so appealing is that they simultaneously took themselves way too seriously but not seriously at all. Mercury was the consummate showman, and his flamboyant stage act, with his perilously short shorts or impossibly tight pants along with his awkward movements made him a sort of court jester of rock and roll, but it was his extraordinary voice that also made him King (and Queen) of rock. Mercury’s vocal power and range is unmatched by every other rock singer who has ever pelvic thrusted across our collective consciousness.

Queen were one of the great bands because they were able to take the genre of arena rock and infuse it with a healthy serving of prog rock which resulted in the most anomalous, avant-garde, radio friendly anthems to ever come out of the genre. Brian May’s titanic guitar sound combined with Mercury’s sublime voice and Roger Taylor’s thunderous drums (and stellar backing vocals) added together to make a first rate and stunningly original band, the likes of which we will certainly never see again.

Which brings us to the film Bohemian Rhapsody, which is more a bio-pic of Mercury than of the band, but the two are forever intertwined. The problem with Bohemian Rhapsody is that for a story about an exquisitely unconventional band and man, it is a painstakingly conventional and standard film. Bohemian Rhapsody cuts a lot of corners and softens a lot of edges to spoon-feed a rather trite and contrived story, and personally, I think a phenomenal talent and complicated human being like Freddie Mercury deserves a hell of a lot better.

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Bio-pics are tough to make, particularly about music legends, and Bohemian Rhapsody falls into every single trap that lay before it. The film doesn’t tell you about the man Freddie Mercury, it simply recreates the myth. The myth is fun but it isn’t interesting because it isn’t real. Freddie Mercury (real name Farrokh Bulsara) was a real person and had all the baggage that goes along with that. The better movie is the movie that tells us the story of Farrokh, not the one that recounts the well-known exploits of Freddie.

An example of a bio-pic that succeeds in crossing the myth and man divide was Oliver Stone’s electric The Doors. Stone was able to dig deeper into the myth of Jim Morrison and find the lost man/little boy at its center.

A lot of people commented after seeing The Doors that Val Kilmer, who starred as Morrison in the film, “looks so much like Jim Morrison”, which is funny because if you actually look at the two men, Val Kilmer looks nothing like Jim Morrison. What made people think he did is that Kilmer is a terrific actor, who in the early 90’s was at the height of his powers. Kilmer created his own Morrison and audiences accepted it because his work was thorough, genuine and grounded. Kilmer played Morrison the man, and then wore the mask of the Morrison myth on top of that, which made for a compelling piece of screen acting.

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In contrast, Rami Malek, who plays Freddie Mercury, is hamstrung by a very limiting script that never allows him to fully flesh out Freddie Mercury/Farrokh Bulsara the man, and so he is left to play Freddie Mercury the myth. To Malek’s great credit, he does a stupendous job doing so, particularly during the musical performances. Malek brings Mercury to life on stage to such a degree that it is deliriously infectious. Like Kilmer, Malek has only a passing resemblance to Mercury in real life, but with his undeniable commitment to character, aided by some very effective fake teeth, Malek visually transforms into a remarkably believable version of Mercury (so much so in one particular scene that it is actually creepy, as Malek/Freddie lies in a blue bed and looks like a corpse) which is heightened with his exquisite recreation of Mercury’s stage presence and persona. (As a weird aside, speaking of Freddie Mercury look-a-likes, one of the doctors on my cracked medical team looks like he could be Freddie Mercury’s blond younger brother…seriously…and truth be told he could actually be related, I don’t know as I don’t know his backstory. Anyway, I find his Freddie look-a-like status distracting and oddly unnerving when trying to have a serious conversation with him. He is an extremely nice guy and very good doctor, I just wish “Fat Bottomed Girls” wouldn’t get stuck in my head every time I interact with him. Although to be fair, one of the other doctors on my cracked staff is quite an attractive woman with a decidedly voluptuous bottom, so maybe I shouldn’t blame all of my Queen ear worms on Freddie Mercury’s little brother.)

The supporting cast of Gwylim Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello all do solid work as well and look strikingly like their real-life band counterparts Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon.

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The supporting actor who stood out the most though, and by a mile, is the luminous Lucy Boynton who plays Mercury’s girlfriend Mary Austin. Boynton is an alluring and captivating presence who jumps off the screen. Her role is pretty under-written but she is able, through sheer magnetism and artistic determination, to create a multi-dimensional character which would have been absent in lesser hands.

The only other film I have seen Boynton in was Sing Street, where she was equally beguiling. Boynton is blessed with being a charismatic yet approachable beauty with a deft and subtle acting touch. She certainly has the ability to be an actress of note and I look forward to seeing where her career takes her as the sky is the limit.

As for the directing of Bohemian Rhapsody, officially, everybody’s least favorite pedophile, Bryan Singer, is the director. But Singer was fired after two thirds of the shoot was completed when he simply vanished and didn’t return to set after the Thanksgiving break. Apparently Singer was dealing with personal some issues, I wonder if they were related to his insatiable (and illegal) sweet tooth when it comes to his sexual partners….hmmmm?

Dexter Fletcher was hired to complete the film and considering the mess this movie could have been with the hapless Singer at the helm followed by a substitute teacher trying to piece it all together, he does a passable job.

Bohemian Rhapsody is not a great movie, but to its credit it is a fun one. Fans of Queen will love the movie, they won’t learn anything new or gain any insights into Freddie Mercury/Farrokh Bulsara but they will get a sanitized ride along with the band through the ups and downs of their roller coaster to the top of the music business.

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As much as the first hour and 40 minutes of the movie is rather lackluster, thanks to Rami Malek and the music of Queen, the final 30 minutes pulsates with a vibrant life. The concert footage is not shot particularly well, and it isn’t a great piece of filmmaking by any stretch (as opposed to say, Oliver Stone’s dynamic direction of concert scenes in The Doors which is magnificent), but the music of Queen that erupts during the climactic concert footage is impossible to deny. At my screening there was a palpable sense of joy mixed with some melancholy at watching Freddie Mercury back from the grave to slay dragons from the Wembley stage once again. As underwhelmed as I was by the majority of the film, the final concert scenes had me leaving the theatre with a bounce in my step.

In conclusion, if you are a Queen fan, even in passing, you should grab the nearest Fat Bottomed Girl or Your Best Friend and Bicycle Race to see Bohemian Rhapsody, I mean why not? It is fun, it has Queen music, it has Rami Malek giving a solid performance and it boasts the incandescent Lucy Boynton. On the other hand, if you are not a Queen fan, or if you are a cinephile looking for serious cinema, Bohemian Rhapsody is not a Killer Queen, dynamite with a laser beam and certainly isn’t guaranteed to blow your mind, it is just a case of Another bio-pic Bites the Dust.

©2018