Those of you who follow me are aware that a central theme of my writings has always been that storytelling is a powerful tool for building human connections. In addition to the written word, film is one of the truest, most compelling and inventive ways ever created to tell stories. This versatile medium communicates ideas, evokes emotions, inspires deep thoughts, provokes us to action or simply entertains us.
That’s why I always look forward to the Academy Awards. As a life-long academic, I always prepare by studying up on the material, which means binge watching as many of the nominated Best Picture movies as possible.
This year, I found myself drawn to one of the nominees, a film biopic about people and an era that seems so far flung from today. Bohemian Rhapsody chronicles the 1970s story of the rise of the iconic rock group Queen and their preternaturally talented lead vocalist Freddie Mercury.
Even after more than 40 years, the introductory notes to Freddy Mercury’s opus, Bohemian Rhapsody sparks a sense of excitement and anticipation for me, not unlike those marvelous trombones that signal the beginning of Richard Wagner’s classic Ride of the Valkyries. In both pieces, while you may not have a clue what’s going on, you only need to sit back and enjoy the listening experience.
Rolling Stone magazine called Bohemian Rhapsody one of the greatest songs of all time. Whether you like it or not, its lyrics and six-minute journey exploring the genres of ballad, opera and rock make for one of the most interesting musical compositions in rock history. Freddie Mercury wrote Bohemian Rhapsody over a seven-year period. With lyrics that include words like Scaramouche, which in Italian means ‘little skirmisher, a reference to the Fandango, a Spanish form of dance, Bismillah, which in Arabic means “in the Name of God, and Beelzebub (literally, from ancient Hebrew – “lord of the flies”) – one of the seven princes of hell in Christian literature, this song is a mysterious and massively creative composition and a great example of storytelling, as is the movie.
There were three personal takeaways for me after watching this movie. First, Freddie Mercury was the personification of a leader. His immense personal courage, swaggering confidence, unrivalled creative spark, musical virtuosity, and business savvy were clearly central to Queen’s meteoric rise and its ability to inspire generations.
Second, like many creative geniuses, Mercury faced daunting personal struggles. Born Farrokh Bulsara to a working-class family of emigres from Zanzibar, he struggled throughout much of his life with sexual identity and substance abuse. And yet, despite those challenges, he managed to channel his inner voice to create soaring music, which four decades later still streams continuously across the web in bits and bytes of digital harmony, and echoes throughout sporting arenas around the world.
He was both original, and inspirational. Watching actor Rami Malek channel Mercury’s performances in the film reminded me of the experience of listening to operatic superstar Renée Fleming’s soaring arias at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. He clearly loved the limelight and performing, and like other iconic and fated musicians and performers (think Judy Garland or Janis Joplin) put everything in his being on the line for his performances.
Bohemian Rhapsody has set a new box office record as the highest-grossing music biopic in global history after rocking past the $600 million mark.
Meanwhile, the movie musical’s popularity has given Queen’s song of the same name a massive streaming boost. In fact, the most-streamed song ever released in the 20th century.
So even despite Freddie Mercury’s tragic story and untimely death, his rich musical legacy will continue to enrich the world for years to come. Share your thoughts on either the film, Queen’s music, or the meaning of the song, Bohemian Rhapsody.
© Tyra Manning 2019