The show must go on
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I was surprised to see there are so many Queen fans in Korea, but I should have guessed it was so because my peers often share Queen’s music on Facebook and wrote that they wanted to watch a sing-along version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The movie about the British rock band Queen, and mainly focusing on the life of its late lead singer Freddie Mercury, has attracted more than 2 million viewers in Korea in two weeks.
The movie has not only done well at the box office, but the band’s music has shot up the charts, not only in Korea, but all around the world.
The movie has grossed over $280 million worldwide. It is unusually popular in Korea, where movies about music haven’t been successful. According to American box office revenue site Box Office Mojo, Bohemian Rhapsody made more money in Korea ($7 million dollars) than in the United Kingdom ($6.3 million dollars) last weekend, its second week in theaters.
The popularity cannot be explained by the nostalgia of middle-aged fans in their 40s and 50s alone who grew up listening to Queen. Young viewers have discovered that the songs they are familiar with from commercials or school cheers were made by Queen. Different generations, mainly men in their 40s and 50s, went to see the movie. Some watched it in a regular theater first, then returned to see it in the 3-D or music theater versions. There are old fans who are members of Queen fan clubs, but it is noteworthy that average middle-aged men who had forgotten about Queen for a long time have joined in on the mania by watching the movie over and over.
The movie did not get very good opening reviews. Critics portrayed it as a shallow biography, over-simplifying Freddie Mercury, an immigrant with a complicated heritage, a minority and a bisexual. Of Parsi descent, Freddie Mercury’s family practiced Zoroastrianism, and after growing up in Africa, he obtained U.K. citizenship in his late teens. There were also considerable factual flaws in the movie, although Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor were directly involved in the movie production.
But fans didn’t seem to care. They accepted the movie as a music film, not a biography, and the 20-minute-long Live Aid performance from 1985 makes up for all the flaws. Rather than a typical third-person view showing the entire concert, the camera focused on the musicians, stage and audience to successfully recreate the 1985 concert. Audiences have enjoyed the performance as if they were at the concert, not watching a music documentary. The movie allows viewers to experience, not watch, the concert. It was only natural that audiences are singing along.
Music brings back nostalgia. Music brings us back to the time when we listened to a particular song and it reminds us of who we were during that time. The middle-aged men singing Queen songs together may be reminded of when they were in high school or college, collecting pirated records, listening to their radios and AFKN, or singing protest songs instead of pop music. Perhaps, the movie helps them remember their youth, Queen and the rock.
The message of Freddie Mercury as an icon of minority and multiculturalism was powerful. His appearance was a symbol of multiculturalism. His fashion and music reveal his bisexual identity. Because his stage outfits were considered typical of gay fashion, some interpret “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a coming-out message and “We Are the Champions” as a tribute to homosexuals. In his lifetime, Freddie Mercury was pestered to reveal his sexual identity, but young audiences today are different. They are more attracted to diversity and respect various sexual orientations without prejudice.
In the movie, when asked about Queen’s identity, Freddie Mercury said, “We’re four misfits who don’t belong together. We’re playing for other misfits. And the outcasts right in the back of the room, we’re pretty sure they don’t belong either. We belong to them.” When he reveals to the members that he had AIDS, he says he wants to be a musician till the end, and he decides who he is. As a free man who is not bound to conventions and is shamelessly self-assured, he represented persecuted minorities. That’s why Queen resonates with audiences in the 21st-century.
As the music scene transitions from the golden days of rock in the ‘70s to the renaissance of pop in the ‘80s, Queen was popular as a vocal-oriented rock band. But they were also underestimated in comparison to Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. As a famous Korean jazz critic said, no other band offers unique mise-en-scène of rock music like Queen. The movie ends with Freddie Mercury singing “The Show Must Go On” following the Live Aid concert set of “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “We Will Rock You,” and “We Are the Champion.” Freddie Mercury is gone, but the show must go on. Queen’s legend is never ending. Nov. 24 marks the 27th anniversary of his death.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 14, Page 27