A Night at the Opera, Queen's 1975 breakout album, was a coming of age classic for the boys of LaLumiere Boarding School. Along with other contemporary classics like Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, and Kiss: Alive, it was the soundtrack for a group of guys learning to live away from home for the first time. As a result, each song took on a special meaning, their lyrical and sonic elements blending into a blueprint in preparation for a future pop cultural consciousness. I should know. I was one of those boys. A Night at the Opera was an epiphany for me, a scrapbook of styles that seemed to suggest the entire breadth and width of modern music. In tandem with such a discovery was the curiosity of how something so seminal came to be made. Thankfully, we have delightful DVDs like Eagle Vision's Classic Albums: Queen – The Making of A Night at the Opera. Over the course of 90 amazing minutes, we learn all the important details of how this expansive epic was forged, and how four distinct creative voices came together to make one of the decade's most memorable sonic statements.
After a trio of terrific albums, Queen were still a cult act seeking some semblance of international recognition. "Killer Queen" had been a huge hit (pushing the LP Sheer Heart Attack up the charts), but the band had little to show for it. Scheduled to enter the studio once more, the guys were convinced they could make a smash hit, if only someone would let them. Yet they were deeply in debt, and had very little to show financially for their past efforts. Angered by the management he felt stole from them outright, lead singer Freddie Mercury vented his rage into a clipped keyboard raga that summed up the group's music business bilking. The tune, "Death On Two Legs", was the initial volley in what would eventually become A Night at the Opera, a masterwork of mixed musical ideas all channeled through Queen's own creative conceptualization. Touching on almost every aspect of popular songstyling, from musical hall to metal, pure pop perfection to odd anarchic opuses, Mercury, along with guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor finally had a calling card upon which to conquer the world. And thanks to the albums most famous song, the operatic oddity "Bohemian Rhapsody", the days of languishing outside the limelight were over.
The story of how art is created can be disturbingly dense. It can also be a half-hearted salute to happenstance. Sometimes, greatness comes in unexpected waves of inspiration. At other instances, it's meticulously crafted over months of painstaking perfectionism. All of these examples can be used to describe the process Queen went through when the band made their monumental A Night at the Opera. Their brilliant blend of Tin Pan Alley and T-Rextasy was certainly original enough. It poked at prog while keeping pop directly in its effervescent sights. Eventually, the group would start to take itself too seriously, and by 1981's Hot Space, the fellows had to cruise on their collective countrymen's goodwill to continue their string of successes. Sadly, Freddie Mercury's life as a closeted bi-sexual man caught up with him, resulting in his death from AIDS in 1991. While May and Taylor soldier on, using former Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers as a weak Mercury replacement, the 70s still mark the creative zenith for a band best remembered for a set of sensational, timeless songs.
A Night at the Opera contains several of said tunes, most notably the monster hits "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "You're My Best Friend". Along with the rest of the regal showstoppers (including "Death on Two Legs", "The Prophet Song", "'39" and "I'm In Love with My Car") the album represented a clear, sincere statement of what Queen was capable of. With the maverick music maker Roy Thomas Baker behind the boards, and an remarkably skilled quartet of talented songwriters (each band member was a proficient tunesmith) at the ready, the boys wanted to forge their legacy with this record. It's this desire and dedication to one last significant attempt at a successful soundscape that makes this Classic Albums documentary so mesmerizing. Unlike other musicians who seem to fall into their success like the dues-paying pros they are, Queen really worked incredibly hard for their stardom. May and Taylor tell stories of long nights in the studio, reconfiguring songs and structuring backing charts so that everything on A Night at the Opera was over the top, flamboyant, and aurally amazing. As a live act, this foursome was capable of compelling, creative rock and roll. But once in the studio, they blossomed in the best post-Beatlemania manner possible.
At 48 minutes, the main movie aspect of this DVD does skip over a couple of tracks. "Sweet Lady" gets a minimal mention, while "The Prophet Song" is completely left out. Thankfully, more info is available as part of the added content and in truth, said bonus is just as important as the original offering. Both act as companion pieces, addressing material the other avoids to become engaging bookends on this album's behind the scenes situations. Sadly two of the group are not able or willing to participate, though one has a pretty good excuse. Gone almost 15 years, Freddie Mercury is seen in a couple of generic clips discussing the band dynamic and how it functions, but he cannot provide any true commentary on the tracks he wrote. Equally frustrating is the lack of John Deacon. Notoriously shy, he obviously has some issues with his time in Queen (he failed to appear with the remaining members at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) since, according to his bandmates, he wants nothing to do with the business. While his sole song on the album – the classic "You're My Best Friend" – speaks volumes for his ability as a creative force in the group, it would have been nice to hear him articulate that for himself.
Thankfully, the elusive Roy Thomas Baker is present, long blond hair hiding his aging looks, and this production whiz is a wealth of detail. For anyone who has marveled at his multi-tracked productions, Baker gives away a few of his tricks, while discussing the fun of making music with Queen. The band reciprocates with May and Taylor delivering engaging anecdotes about how their competing perfectionism drove everyone, even Baker, to do their best. Since they are the only two able to discuss the good old days, May and Taylor become the unconscious curriers of the Queen cause, and they aren't about to dish the dirt. No one is disrespected and everything is painted in very British tones of professionalism and politeness. And while this might seem dull, it's actually exactly what we want to hear. This is not a Behind the Music tabloid trashing of the band's excesses. This is the story of how a magnificent album was made, and there is no room for scandal and innuendo in the art form. All that is better left for another time, another title.
So if you always wondered how Freddie Mercury's vocals were "treated" to achieve that old fashioned radio crooner effect during "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon", if you still find the phased effect on "The Prophet Song" spine-tingling, if the notion of Brian May meticulously overdubbing his grand guitar work to emulate "Good Company"'s jazz combo inspires waves of endless fascination, you will definitely dig the Making of A Night at the Opera. Even if you only have a passing interest in the band, or think "Bohemian Rhapsody" was just a clever comic moment from Wayne's World, there is still a great deal to love here. Since this documentary takes the art of music making seriously, not just some lark by a bunch of idiotic arrested adolescents, it offers refreshing insights and true details about the pain and struggle that goes into such seemingly effortless fare. Even with its truncated take on the LP, this is still a fascinating film. The added elements make it all the better.
Presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the video aspects of this title are fairly impressive. Sure, the archival footage of Mercury looks old and dated, and some of the video imagery from the 70s suffers from flare and bleeding, but the present day dynamics are excellent. The colors are sharp, and even with some significant soft focus, you can still see the wrinkles in May and Taylor's faces. There is a kind of literal golden glow to the visuals that may give rise to a few bouts of nostalgia nausea, but overall, this is an impressive optical offering.
Classic Albums: Queen – The Making of A Night at the Opera is presented in a dynamic Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix, yet it is strangely the only underwhelming aspect of this DVD. Certainly, all the narration can be heard clearly and distinctly, and the music sounds mighty good, but there have recently been a series of DVD-Audio versions of the group's albums, and the opportunity to hear those versions would have been sweet. And since the new remasters are available, a 5.1 track would have been easy to create as well. Still, for what it's worth, the sonic side of this disc is good. It could have been great.
Since they've been mentioned several times, there is no real need to go into great depth about the bonus features. More or less a series of outtakes from the film, they are as important to understanding A Night at the Opera as the material in the main movie. Of particular interest is Roger Taylor's lesson in drumming, a full acoustic version of "'39" by Brian May, and some vintage clips of Queen in concert (including their fabled Hyde Park show from 1976). Everything here compliments and supplements the stories we've been told, and turns a terrific 48 minute installment of the series into a near definitive discourse on the album.
Highly Recommended for fans and those unfamiliar with the group or their great music, Classic Albums: Queen – The Making of A Night at the Opera is a wonderful trip back in time. It's a joyous journey to an era when LPs were considered artistic statements, not just a collection of singles, and when bands could take the time to forge a true sonic signature before their 15 minutes in the pop culture consciousness was up. In fact, A Night at the Opera was so successful, it warranted a sequel of sorts. A Day at the Races (yes, they were both named after Marx Brothers movies. The band even met Groucho!) mimicked the formula forged by its predecessor, even down to the ability to match Day songs ("White Man", "Drowse") with Night influences ("The Prophet Song", "I'm in Love with My Car"). Representing a kind of creative nirvana, Queen would shoot to international stardom, and never be this hungry, or this happy, again. No wonder A Night at the Opera resonated with me and my buddies in boarding school. It was eternal musical optimism laced with audiophile dynamite. And as adolescents newly let loose in the real world, we were more than happy to drink it all in.
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