Three years before the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the British rock band Queen played a concert in a soccer stadium in Budapest. These sorts of intrusions behind the Iron Curtain by representatives of western pop culture were rare at the time, in part because, as Roger Taylor says, there was no way for the westerners to make any money.
But the boys in Queen and their management were pretty dollar-savvy fellows. The concert and some pre-show Budapest street scenes featuring individual members of the band were filmed at very low cost by the Hungarian government’s film company. This gave the band a two-hour version of what they were doing in 1986, less than a year after their well-received performance at the Live Aid concert.
That film, “Hungarian Rhapsody,” has been showing, recently, in movie theaters, including our twelve-plex. It begins with a half hour of interview footage and pictures of Queen recording sessions and performances leading up to the ’85-’86 European stadium tour intended to promote their “A Kind of Magic” album. Here is where the viewer first gets the notion of the musicians as uncomplicated and relatively well-adjusted.
Then the hour and a half concert film is four times interrupted by a minute or two spent following each of the band members on some little social adventure in the Hungarian capital—drummer Taylor racing go carts and bassist John Deacon walking through the river-front cafe district. Guitarist Brian May is shown going up in a hot air balloon. Imagine what good sports the fellows must have been.
Most of the film, though, is just another stadium rock show, edited down to an hour and fifteen minutes or so, with the group running through most of their noteworthy hits. I didn’t hear “Bicycle Race,” “Somebody to Love,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” perhaps most surprisingly “Fat Bottomed Girls,” or “Killer Queen.” No scheme seems to explain why these songs would have been the ones left out.
Not all the others get full performances. “Bohemian Rhapsody” has its beginning and ending performed live and its middle broadcast from the recording—and I understand this was the usual way the band had of playing this vocally-difficult number. Front man Freddie Mercury, the Parsi Zoroastrian whose died from AIDS in the early 90s, sings a Hungarian folk song while May plays a twelve-string Ovation. The crowd loves that, and seems to know the other material.
Queen had a lot of good songs to play. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” “Under Pressure.” “One Mission.” “We Will Rock You.” “We Are the Champions.” “Radio GaGa.” The Eastern Block crowd, and the contemporary movie theater ticket-holder get to hear a lot of good pop music from the rock era.
Mercury was a sort of chipmunk with a mustache, and we get endless vistas of his underarms here. He loved to stride as much as he loved those tuneful little fillips that finish off developments in his songs. May had and has a completely distinctive lead sound, but he comes off better on records than in the film. The rhythm section is insistently professional, though one wonders if Deacon, in his yellow John Stockton shorts, wasn’t dressing as if he were working with Wham.
All in all, “Hungarian Rhapsody” is a decent record of a decent performance by a famous band during a time when rock would be more important to politics than it was to aesthetics. Most concert movies shown in movie theaters are rushed to the screen straight from tours of basketball facilities. With this show we had some historical perspective.