Review: HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY - QUEEN LIVE IN BUDAPEST
When done well (think The Last Waltz, or Gimme Shelter to name but two) the show itself takes on extra meaning given the importance of the historic occasion, or the particular impact of the band at that part in their career.
Hungarian Rhapsody doesn't quite live up to those lofty heights, but it's interesting for a few other reasons. First, it's the last major tour that Freddie Mercury ever did with the band. Secondly, it's the tour that was initiated following what even the most jaded of rock fans must admit was a sublime performance at Live Aid. In a 17 minute set, the boys in the band had tens of thousands of people in Wembley stadium positively throbbing to their music. Queen's power grew as their audience did, and that comeback of sorts as part of the African Famine relief show proved that they could reach out to Billions as effectively as anyone has ever done through popular music.
Rhapsody screened for one night only in movie theatres across North America last week, and it included what was billed as an exclusive mini-documentary. This 20 minute series of interviews and concert clips, shot on vintage video, showed some of the context for this period of the band's career. Naturally, hearing Freddie talk of "who wants to live forever" is a bit of a downer, as are clips from Highlander that remind just how silly that film is.
These grainy shots and interlaced images remind just how crap video tech was back a few decades ago, and this is how much of the 80s was captured for posterity. Only for the few, the insane, was the expense of film presentation done, and then it was often cheap stock and 16mm handheld cameras.
What's relatively unique then about this Hungary show is that by going behind the Iron Curtain, Queen was afforded the full might of a Communist government that liked to give work to its prominent filmmakers. No fewer than 15 cameras (!), all shooting 35mm, were used to capture the show. The deal was to shoot the thing and then tour the film instead of the band, playing Poland, Czechoslovakia, even the Soviet Union, places where in the mid-80s the band was simply unable to go.
This show can be directly compared to another show that the band shot on 35mm, their Queen Rock Montreal gig from 1981. There, the decision to shoot on proper film stock was more a result of the band's hubris, rather than some insane runaround of geopolitical divisions. Despite certain flaws, Montreal remains a superior show, clearly the band at their peek (the Blu-Ray for that gig also includes the Live-Aid show, making its release all the more definitive).
Still, there's much to admire about Hungary. On stage, Freddie's voice is getting a bit tired, his high notes not quite as electric as they once were, but the man is still in complete control of the massive audience. While he doesn't wear anything nearly as preposterous as the short shorts and Montréal Canadiens baseball hat he dons in the previous gig, his flamboyance is still very much evident in his costume choices. Bassist John Deacon' mustard track pants and sweatshirt, soon replaced by tiny gym shorts, is however particularly offensive, even by the standards of mid-80s fashion.
The tunes chosen are drawn heavily from both their early records (no doubt the ones that had enough time to circulate behind the curtain), and their newest works such as those drawn from the Highlander project. I grant that it's not exactly high choreography, but when the band kicks into "Radio Ga-Ga", and the crowd mimes the same hand-clapping gesture as per the video and the Wembley gig, it's eminently satisfying. For a generation who takes for granted the instant internationalism of YouTube, such cultural diplomacy through an imperialistically monikered band at this time was actually quite a significant moment in history.
Between the songs the band is shown in a variety of awkward social situations throughout Budapest, but they seem to handle it with requisite grace. These are mere blips, however, for the most part we see the band doing their thing on stage.
Broken down as a film, it's almost dizzying the way that the set is captured. By having the completely ridiculous numbers of cameras on stage, the coverage afforded borders on the schizophrenic. Why have one closeup on the singer when you can have four, rapidly cutting between them all? It's a surfeit of riches, to be sure, but it also affords angles and moments of the show that are often dropped in conventional captures of live performances. If there's one thing particularly unique about this documentary than this is it, and I leave it up to you to decide if that's worthy enough for you to seek it out.
The sound recording of the show is as capable as you would want, but unfortunately at the public screening they did not crank the volume to painful levels, the way any show like this demands to be heard. That's what the home release is for, I take it.
It was announced at the show that stalwart music-film distributor Eagle Rock has acquired the complete Queen video catalogue, so we can expect a slew of other releases from the archives. It's difficult to see how the quality of the Montréal gig can be surpassed, as even this very find Hungarian gig doesn't supplant the former release. Still, for any Queen fanatic it's a fine record of an extremely important time in both the band's and world history, as we were seeing the minor cracks in the Middle of the Reagan/Thatcher era that would lead to the eventual collapse of the Iron Curtain.
So, while Hungarian Rhapsody may not be quite the astonishing find it promised to be, it's still an extremely enjoyable, captivating show by a remarkable band. If you're already a fan, it's well worth picking up when it's released shortly for home viewing. If you're trying to find out what all the fuss is about, I'd suggest first digging into the earlier gig from Canada to see the real kind of magic that this particular band could bring on its best days.
Hungarian Rhapsody - Queen Live in Budapest will be released by Eagle Rock Entertainment in November 2012. This article evaluates the the one-off theatrical presentation of the film, and will be updated when the discs arrive for review.