My husband and I went to see the new Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody this weekend. I have long loved the band Queen and found Mercury’s life story interesting so I was excited to see the film, which was very good overall, even though parts of it were historically inaccurate. When the real story is so interesting, I don’t understand why movies still feel the need to heighten the drama by changing timelines or exaggerating conflict…, but I don’t want to spoiler the film, so for now I will just let it inspire today’s music Monday and I will write a more in depth review for later when more people have had a chance to watch it. So, no spoilers below, promise, unless you know absolutely nothing about Freddie Mercury already.
Most people are familiar with the song Bohemian Rhapsody (1975). Written by the band’s lead singer Freddie Mercury, the song is part rock ballad, part mock opera, part gibberish? I wish I could tell you that as a historian I had cracked the code and could tell you exactly what the song is about, but it would be the height of hubris to claim I had a better interpretation than all of those who have been trying to figure it out for 43 years.
I used to think parts of it were references to Mercury’s HIV diagnosis; however, it would be 12 more years after he wrote Bohemian Rhapsody before he received that diagnosis. Many believe the song is a veiled reference to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, as he came to terms with being gay. On the surface the song seemingly tells the story of a “poor boy” on trial for killing someone. Mercury himself never confirmed the meaning of the song, telling listeners to make out what it meant to them.
The song’s operatic section (the part that sounds the most like gibberish) actually uses real words and names taken from real operas and other sources. An article from BBC America offers a glossary of terms for the song which helps to sort it out a bit.
“A quick glossary of terms: Scaramouche is a stock character from the Italian clown tradition commedia dell’arte. He’s a fool, but adept at getting himself out of trouble. A fandango is a Spanish flamenco dance. Galileo was a Florentine astronomer, the inclusion of whom may be a nod to noted stargazer Brian May [lead guitarist of Queen, had studied astrophysics]. Figaro is, of course, taken from Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville. Bismillah means “in the name of Allah” and is the first word in The Qu’ran, and “Mamma Mia!” is an Italian exclamation of incredulity or surprise, referring to the Virgin Mary.”
Rather than being inspired by history (though it was a bit through its use of the above allusions), the song itself is a piece of history. At the time it was recorded it was groundbreaking in many ways. It was recorded for the band’s 1975 album, A Night at the Opera and at the time of its release it was considered the most expensive single ever recorded. At 5 minutes and 55 seconds it was an improbable hit. Nonetheless it was wildly popular and a commercial success. It lacked a chorus, another factor that made it an unlikely hit. The song’s promotional video also blazed trails, taking the fledgling practice of video promotions to new heights and pioneering the age of MTV in which music videos became necessary for singles.
The song is considered by many to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Acclaimed for being innovative in its fusing of hard rock with operatic style music, the song has inspired people for decades. Its list of awards and accolades is expansive including being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It topped the charts upon its release and again after Mercury’s death in 1991 when it was rereleased and when it was used in Wayne’s World.
The complete video is below. Take Freddie Mercury’s advice and take a good, hard listen and see what the song means to you.