Aura(l) Pleasures – Queen’s ‘Flash Gordon’ Soundtrack

❉ Queen’s music is a fundamental part of the texture of Flash Gordon, an artful fusion of sound and vision, writes Don Klees.

All that’s missing is the images – until you realize the music has already sketched them for you. Very few movie scores evoke the film they accompany more intimately than Queen’s soundtrack for Flash Gordon. Likewise there are very few artists whose musical personality fits a movie better than Queen’s did with this one. The match is all the more striking considering that the band was neither impresario Dino De Laurentis nor director Mike Hodges’ first choice to provide the soundtrack.

Behind-the-scenes intrigue aside, choosing Queen – then nearing the peak of their pre-Live Aid popularity – to score the movie spoke to its commercial ambitions in no uncertain terms. Coming just a few years after the original Star Wars and the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, both of which owed some debt to earlier incarnations of its source material, Flash Gordon was clearly envisioned as a potential blockbuster – perhaps the start of a “franchise” in contemporary terms. However, despite a respectable box-office performance, especially in the UK, it ultimately took its place in the realm cult-classics.

In that respect, the movie and its soundtrack are well matched. By soundtrack album standards, it was quite successful, reaching the top 10 in several countries and the top 30 in several more. By Queen standards, though, the record fell short of the more traditional albums that came before and after. The next time the group embraced movie music in earnest, the focus was individual songs rather than a score, making Flash Gordon a cult-classic within the band’s body of work.

This holds true for both the music and its presentation. Several years ago The Guardian’s music critic, Alexis Petridis suggested that, “If [Flash Gordon’s] instrumentals weren’t covered in dialogue, it’s tempting to think they would be afforded the same hipster reverence as Giorgio Moroder and Vangelis.” He added that, “Overlooking the opportunity to heavily feature the sound of Brian Blessed shouting his head off wouldn’t have been very Queen.” While the latter point is accurate, it also underestimates the album’s accomplishment.

“We wanted to do something that was a real soundtrack,” Queen guitarist Brian May told Melody Maker in 1980. May’s comment was intended to contrast the “toned down” efforts of other rock artists to write music for movies with the autonomy Queen had to be themselves “as long as it complemented the picture.” Though the band reputedly only watched a rough 20-minute segment of the movie before starting work on the soundtrack, they clearly saw their own pop-art inclinations reflected in it.

That affinity isn’t surprising since the movie’s script was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., one of the architects of the pop-art influenced Batman TV series from the 1960s. As in Batman, the leads in Flash Gordon mainly serve as earnest embodiments of virtue allowing the renowned actors around them to shine as the larger-than-life supporting characters. Brian Blessed is the most iconic example, but Timothy Dalton, Max Von Sydow and Peter Wyngarde all get a share of the spotlight. The soundtrack’s particular triumph is weaving those performances into the music in such a way that it recaptures the experience of the movie for listeners.

From the vantage point of an overloaded on-demand viewing environment, it’s easy to forget just how few avenues existed to revisit a favorite movie or TV series in the years before VCRs became commonplace. Novelisations, comics and View-Master all offered individual engagement, but none of these mediums were especially immersive. Even with large sections of dialogue from the movie and excerpts from John Williams’ score, the narrated record The Story Of Star Wars simply recounted the movie’s events rather than allowing them to envelop listeners.

In contrast, the opening scene with Ming the Merciless and Klytus brings listeners into Flash Gordon’s world within moments of putting the needle down on the record (or the digital equivalent). From there the album uses dialogue sparingly to convey mood and feeling more so than plot. This means some favourite lines are absent – namely Prince Barin’s epic exclamation “Freeze, you bloody bastards!” – but the overall effect is worth it. The takeaway from any beloved movie tends to be emotional rather than intellectual, a function of texture as much as text.

Queen’s music is a fundamental part of the texture of Flash Gordon. From propulsive pieces like Battle Theme, which accompanies the Hawkmen attack, to more delicate interludes such as Execution of Flash, it’s virtually impossible to imagine the onscreen scenes could exist without the band’s contributions. In the former, the incorporation of some well-chosen dialogue ensures that Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan both steals and embodies the show. “Impetuous boy,” he proclaims, decrying Flash’s reckless heroism, before reflecting, “Ah well, who wants to live forever?”

Lest anyone worry about Vultan (or Brian Blessed) getting too serious, he punctuates that philosophical moment by commanding his warriors to “DIVE!” With his mix of being serious about what he does but not necessarily how he does it. Vultan can be seen as Queen’s onscreen avatar. Whatever the band’s intentions in that area, his presence certainly makes the soundtrack more compelling.

The same applies to the single version of Flash’s Theme. As expertly crafted as any of Queen’s other hits, Flash distills the album’s approach into an exquisite two minutes and forty-eight seconds of pop-music pleasure. Like the album, it didn’t reach the same heights as many other Queen releases, but the inclusion of Vultan saying “Gordon’s alive” turned that line into a catch-phrase that Brian Blessed still obligingly performs for fans.

Had Flash Gordon been a huge hit, with the soundtrack becoming one of the best-selling albums of Queen’s career, it’s tempting to wonder if the band would have revisited that world for the inevitable sequels. Could they have found fresh inspiration or would the law of diminishing returns – exemplified by the Bee Gees’ soundtrack for Staying Alive – have taken hold? That thought aside, the actual circumstances are perfect in their own way. In a franchise-driven world, the movie and album are twin testaments to the value of one-offs, an artful fusion of sound and vision that continues to thrill.


❉ Queen – ‘Flash Gordon’ was released on 8 December 1980 in the United Kingdom by EMI Records and in February 1981 in the United States by Elektra Records. Parlophone issued a remastered version in 1994 as part of the Queen Digital Master Series, and subsequently several additional re-remastered versions have appeared, including on heavyweight vinyl.

❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

 

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