Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Flash Gordon Soundtrack 1980
People hate on Flash Gordon so much it just isn't right. Amidst its over the top style, there is much to savor. Top-most of these being the greatness that is the original soundtrack by Queen. Remember now, this is Queen before they were completely watered down by the pop-focused whirlpool of the 80's. At this point, Queen was still straddling the greasy, hot line between experimental pop and excellent British heavy rock.
VVer #1 has listened to this soundtrack so often it's practically in his DNA. For years, this was his only Queen LP. Why? Containing story elements of classic sci-fi, with the high-octane glaminess from Freddie/Brian/John/Roger, it plays like a concept album. Instead of just a straight review, it seemed logical, as it is truly a part of the film, to review the album in the context of the film itself. Here it goes:
HOT HAIL!!! METEOR STORM!!! TORNADO!!! EARTHQUAKE!!! VOLCANIC ERUPTION!!!
Ming's evil laugh morphs into the iconic kickdrum/piano opening salvo. The graphics of the opening credit sequence, comprised totally of imagery from the original comic strip, are perfectly timed to the Flash theme song. This theme has all the Queen elements you love: four part harmonizing, nasty interstellar guitar leads, a driving rhythm section, and just the right heaping helping of pop. After this mega-opening (FLASH! AAAAHHHHHH, HE'LL SAVE EVERY ONE OF US!!!), is a long gap of plot and character introductions before we get into any more Queen. It actually times out perfectly, lulling you to nearly forget that the world's greatest rock band is waiting in the wings. When "pathetic earthlings," Flash, Dale Arden, and Dr. Hans Zarkov, launch into the psychedelic "Imperial Vortex" you find yourself immersed in droning, mystical, new-age soundscapes soon to be accompanied by entrancing drums. Note all the laser beam and magnetic force field sounds--yes--done by Queen.
Into the throne room for some antics and a proper introduction to Ming, "Hail Ming Hail, Ruler of the Universe! Hail Ming Hail, Emperor of the Galaxy!" His theme music is ... truly evil. It's a cross between a slow motion chainsaw riff and a therimin, distorted with a wahwah petal. Even when Ming uses his magic ring to make Dale go all sexy/weird it's the same theme, just solo, slinky synth. You only get a moment to digest this when Flash turns all Johnny football and tries to fight his way out, and in rocks Queen with a corny, upbeat, synth-funk jam. Crashing drums and over the top guitar leads make your hair stand up straight. Next, a goofy one-liner, "Are your men on the right pills?" and in crashes Brian May with some tasty licks that even get a little heavy for a hot second, but only a second, and then Flash gets knocked out cold... cue evil therimin. The fight scene is entirely silly and is most likely just an excuse to have this massive jam.
It's worth noting the abundance of orchestral flourishes throughout the film. Apparently these were arranged by somebody named Howard Blake. You would never know this from watching the film, as his name barely exists in the credits. Well, he does a fine assist for Queen who wrote everything you hear. Together they create just the right amount of ambiance, embouyance, and umbeyonce (all three are right depending on context). There are moments where you'll be saying "that's not Queen!" especially the (spoiler alert!) "death sequence," but you'll also be thinking "this is awesome." How about some excellent, brooding, gothic orchestration which leads into a new-age, guitar-led, stoner flautist moment? Cue the brass section and scene! Super high drama, courtesy of Mr. Blake.
"Who's voice is that, Freddie Mercury?" asks VVer #1. (Spoiler alert!) Flash comes back to life to the sound of some sort of angelic oohing and ahhing. That's just one you'll have to hear for yourself. It's weird.
Here again we wait for quite a while as the earthlings begin to make their way towards a plan to stop Ming. "Nothing can save me now," says Dale, tears streaming from her eyes. That mesmerizing drum cadence returns for a solid five minutes of exposition. In roars the entire drum set all at once (drummer Roger Taylor really sets the bar high on this LP) and into the galloping synths (nobody's playing synths like that anymore)! It's high octane fun but what really kicks it up a few notches is the insane drum breakdown (sounds just like a speed bag in the gym) that unleashes May's absolute crushingness. Add in laser beams everywhere! Let's just say that the fight scene on Ajax battlecruiser is what Queen was born to write music for. "Impetuous boy!" When Queen brings it during the action sequences, wearing an adult diaper is highly recommended. "Ah well, who wants to live forever!?!"
"I think all movie fight scenes should have Queen backing them." Sage wisdom from VVer #2.
Consider for a moment other movies with soundtracks and scores composed by one band or musician. There aren't many. Not like this. Much less comic book, action films by rock bands. Shaft, from nine years prior, is really the only soundtrack on this scale that comes to mind. Isaac Hayes pumps out the entire funky score along with the soundtrack. No others touch this achievement. Some folks come close, but no banana: Superfly by Curtis Mayfield and Trouble Man by Marvin Gaye are in that alley, but don't really hold together as well; Magical Mystery Tour by and starring the Beatles could count, but is the movie any good?; Dead Man is mostly just Neil Young making improvisational feedback on a guitar, not up to scale; Ghost Dog from 1999 features mostly original music by RZA, but not exclusively. Queen really is the first (and only) band to do a complete rock score on this level of mainstream film and for such a colorful one at that. It's unparalleled.
Back to the record for a second (lest you forget, dear reader, this is a vinyl project), which is a near-perfect album (twelve stars out of five!). It has amazing songs and a good portion of the orchestral score (apparently there is an entire other album out there of just Mr. Blake’s score). To boot it’s got loads of interspersed dialogue and sound effects. When you listen to it end-to-end, it's just like getting the condensed version the film which, frankly, unless you're seeing it on the big screen, is just about the best way to experience Flash Gordon (but definitely see the movie first).
Ming takes his final bow while the band makes as much noise as possible... "FLASH!!!"
Final credits reprise the Ajax battle scene and knock what's left of your teeth out. There's even lyrics now and more laser beams!
P.S. The VVers used the Flash Gordon version of Wagner's wedding march for their actual wedding... and it was absolutely the right thing to do.