This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Nick Spacek’s turn to do the damage. Here are Adrianna’s thoughts on Queen – Live at Wembley Stadium.
When Nick’s list of recommendations for the month came in, my eyes lit up as I read through the titles and realized they were all concert films. I grew up in a family of musicians and film lovers, so it was practically my genetic destiny to become both; suffice to say, this month’s Rekt theme hit two of my biggest sweet spots, and I was eager to jump in. Many of the films on Nick’s list I had already seen, and since the aim of this column is to take the plunge with something totally unfamiliar (which meant I unfortunately had to pass up Stop Making Sense, my favorite concert film from my favorite band), I opted for something I had only ever seen in piecemeal through incomplete clips on the internet: Queen’s Live at Wembley.
I was familiar with the lore, of course: over two remarkable summer nights in July of 1986, Queen knocked out a pair of stellar, sold-out shows at Wembley Stadium in London, concerts which quickly ascended to hallowed status in the pantheon of Greatest Rock Shows of All Time. I was equally familiar with the look: Freddie Mercury’s Castro Clone ‘stache-and-shades combo, and the now-iconic yellow jacket and white jumpsuit worn throughout. Yet, despite being a fan of the band since childhood, I never bothered to watch the damn thing from start to finish. Now, having finally seen the complete concert film, I understand what I’ve been missing.
From the moment the band emerges from the wings and Freddie Mercury struts out ahead to the mouth of the stage to rally his faithful, an immediate surge in energy is palpable. It’s almost magnetic, lowering defenses and pulling the audience in unaware through sly force, and the folks on the couch at home aren’t exempt. What became readily apparent fairly early on in the show is how well sequenced it is, a not-insignificant factor in that attention-grabbing mesmerism. The band keeps the audience engaged through surprise and pacing, ramping things up and bringing them down where necessary, generating a pleasant ebb and flow. Though there’s no shortage of barnstormers, a few expertly deployed acoustic ballads (“Love of My Life,” “Is This the World We Created?” and half of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” among others) allow some room to breathe and, by providing some necessary contrast, emphasize the dynamic range of the set; the slower songs gain emotional resonance while the heavy-hitters hit even heavier.
Furthermore, several of the songs are reworked or extended for a live setting, which is always a refreshing and welcome surprise, at least to my ears. This highlights another element of the band’s DNA that makes them a particularly compelling live unit, and which Live at Wembley brings to the fore: Queen’s music successfully manages a precarious balancing act, wherein songs that are compositionally complex, often marrying many disparate styles and moving parts, remain impressively accessible. Across their body of work, the careful architecture of Queen’s music is characterized by a few constants: razor precision guitar and a tight rhythm section, consciously, at times gloriously ostentatious piano with classical flourishes, four-part harmonies, and all manner of vocal dynamism in general —- and critically, a firm belief in a catchy hook or memorable melody. With all four band members sharing songwriting duties, that’s an impressive intuitive compatibility.
That they are able to not only translate these often demanding songs to a live setting, but build upon them and reshape them in ways that make sense for performance in front of a crowd is jaw-dropping craft. As someone who plays music professionally, I’ve never lost my sense of wonder and amazement at what people are capable of when they grab some instruments, come together, and get serious.
At any rate, and at risk of repeating myself and stating the obvious, Queen’s knack for seamlessly weaving grandeur and camp with rock-solid songwriting especially lends itself to a live performance setting. Queen rejected notions of “authentic” or “natural” expression that served as selling points for some of their contemporaries, and which were touted as virtues by rockist critics, to fully and unrepentantly embrace artifice, wringing every bit of melodrama from these songs and firmly maintaining audience/performer divide. So many of their songs have a built-in grandiosity practically tailored for a performance environment that the costume changes, extended audience call-and-response breakdowns and anthemic sing-a-longs peppered throughout Live at Wembley enhance the inherent strengths of the music, and brilliantly play into the contrivance of godly performer delivering a sermon to the masses from on high.
The stomping beat of “We Will Rock You,” already an energizing conceit, now becomes a powerful rallying cry to the crowd; Freddie’s propensity for scatting and call-and-response, perhaps employed most memorably during the stirring lead up to “Another One Bites the Dust,” joyfully unites the thousands of people in his thrall, making them forget they’re uncomfortably packed together like sardines. The careful relationship dynamic on display between performer and audience, with the former curating as memorable experience as possible, literally sweating for his cause, is Showmanship 101. Rock Show as escapism in its purest, undiluted form.
Moreover, by introducing their music to a live setting, Queen necessarily prove their rock-and-roll bonafides, and these songs are allowed the freedom to unfurl in real-time, in all of their complexity and pop splendor. All of the vocal operatics stick the landing: Brian May’s rapid-fire, legato-heavy playing and dirt-tinged, out-of-phase tone soar (the latter achieved, at least in part, by his use of a self-built guitar and a sixpence coin in place of a traditional pick). May/Deacon/Taylor seamlessly lock together on every song, following Mercury’s lead and deftly modifying where necessary, going wherever their fearless leader takes them and making it all look so effortlessly easy in the process. Without the safety of the studio and all of the sonic trickery it affords, Queen must put up or shut up, and by the end of Live at Wembley, this band could convince the harshest skeptic they’d be fully capable of recreating these songs in their sleep. Roger Taylor is particularly impressive, pulling double-duty as drummer and most active backing vocalist. I remember watching live videos of Queen for the first time as a pre-teen and being absolutely blown away by his capacity to sing and play at the same time; I had never seen a drummer-as-vocalist before (my Dream Theater obsession was still a few years down the road), and he immediately became my favorite member of the band.
All that said, as I watched Live at Wembley, something niggled uncomfortably at the back of my mind. Despite the joyful celebration between performer and audience at its center, and regardless of how incredible and intoxicating I found the musicianship to be, a profound, underlying sadness permeated the proceedings, because I knew something the audience didn’t: that Mercury would be dead in five years’ time, silenced forever by AIDS like so many countless others.
I think a lot about how AIDS has robbed the world of so many talented, unique voices, from all walks of life and all manner of backgrounds and professions, and how many of those people —- including Mercury — could have possibly been saved were it not for the appalling political indifference and active hostility that festered and spread through the ugliness of homophobia, delaying effective treatment and action for so long. I think a lot, too, about what many of these people would be doing right now, and how sorely missed their commentary, their creativity, and their presence is in the here and now. How many other legendary performances did Mercury have in him? What kind of music would he have gone on to write? What would he make of the modern, social media-driven industry paradigm? Maybe it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but my blood boils with the knowledge that we will never know.
To watch Live at Wembley is to effectively watch a band fronted by a ghost; it’s a morbid thought, perhaps, but it’s one I found hard to shake, even as I sat enthralled, miming along to the guitars and drums. This performance is, for me — at least to an extent — a reminder of humanity’s failure of empathy and action. It’s a cynical, black hole of thought I find it all too easy to disappear into when I get to thinking about the artists and other figures who have influenced me or impacted me in some way who were taken by AIDS-related illness (of which there are, unfortunately, many). However, I’d like to be able to balance the cynicism with some positivity, so I’ll offer an additional take, one that doesn’t run in opposition to my downer musings, but in parallel to them, and will bring things back up to leave you on a high note (no pun intended): more than merely a really great concert (albeit one with a bit of retroactive darkness at its core), Live at Wembley is a testament to and celebration of the life and talent of Freddie Mercury, an extraordinarily gifted performer at the peak of his powers, backed by his talented friends who shared his mission. Moreover, it serves as a reminder of those who came before us and paid with their lives so that younger generations of queer folk might have hope of a better tomorrow. So, go pay your respects to Mr. Mercury by firing up Live at Wembley and not getting complacent.