Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 9, 2010

Flashback ’75/Borat Becomes Killer Queen

Mercury Rising… Borat creator and star Sacha Baron Cohen announced to play Freddy Mercury of Queen in new biopic.

There’s something about the on-the-verge-of-disco mid-Seventies, and its pop culture, that holds a special place in my heart.

Take 1975, for example.  I was ten years old. Thanks to the great, long-running Chicago radio staple Saturday Morning Flashback on WXRT, I got a nice reminder this morning about how awesome ’75 was.

For instance, Jaws came out that summer, as did a few other movies that shifted the spirit of Hollywood away from the artsy, gritty early ’70s disillusionment-tinged “films” (Easy Rider, MASH, All the President’s Men), toward the “movies” of the big-budget-blockbuster Eighties.

Plus, in addition to my pre-pubescent tastes gradually “discovering” great older acts like The Beatles, Elton John and Chicago, there was a ton of other great new music coming out that I would not really discover until a good ten to fifteen years later in some cases.

In addition to very good albums from Elton and Chicago, 1975 featured such varied top sellers as Linda Ronstadt, Ohio Players, Average White Band, Paul Simon (Still Crazy After All These Years), Janis Ian, Pink Floyd (Wish You Were Here), Earth, Wind & Fire, Olivia Newton-John and John Denver. The list of top albums for the whole year according to Billboard is over here.

Based on the WXRT radio broadcast today, here are some other 1975 highlights that had lasting impact for years to come:

  • Thin Lizzy’s brash Irish garage rock– sung by Phil Lynott, one of the greatest black rock singers ever — being brought to the masses in a big way.
  • Born to Run – The Boss became boss starting in ’75
  • LaBelle and the ORIGINAL “Lady Marmalade” song (“Hey sister, Soul Sister”… and funk priestess Patti L. teaching all of America what “Voulez vous…” meant)
  • Country/Americana icon Emmylou Harris was getting big airplay on rock and crossover radio stations — in the days when music radio wasn’t so one-dimensional, genre-wise, and Charlie Daniels and Dolly Parton were played on any old AM station simply ’cause they BELONGED everywhere.
  • Blood on the Tracks -Bob Dylan (nothing more need be said)
  • Fleetwood Mac – their first album w/ Nicks & Buckingham
  • ELO – for what it’s worth, Jeff Lynne and his distinctive prog-rock were  a big deal for awhile there –and Lynne learned production techniques in the ELO heyday that would serve him well in coordinating the terrif ‘ Traveling Wilburys supergroup projects of the Eighties (featuring Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Lynne).
  • Bob Marley was still alive,  doing all his great stuff in concert, spreading the Jah Love worldwide.
  • Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, featuring the GIANT sound and orchestration of “Kashmir”.
  • The heyday of Steely Dan, …and those last few years when jazz music actually sold in any serious numbers to a wide and varied audience… though it’s still in okay shape in Europe, thank God.
  • And of course… Queen !

Started in 1971 and more-or-less peaking with A Night at the Opera in ’75 (the album featuring “Bohemian Rhapsody”… party on, Wayne!), Queen was the original blueprint for the power-pop of  Styx and all those 80’s era arena rock groups, plus the romantic, genre-blending and stylistically varied work of bands like Foo Fighters and U2 right up to today.

The band’s blend of hard rock, glam, prog-rock, speed-metal (before it officially existed), blues, acoustic ballads, country/rockabilly (Crazy Little Thing… right?), opera, vaudeville and whatever else you can think of was nothing short of genius, though we didn’t know it at the time.

Nor did I know a dang thing about what a homosexual was, by the way. I found out about them the following year, when I was eleven. I can still vividly remember the bizarre Catholic school sixth grade moment when a friend teased me by calling me a “fag”, and I asked what a fag was. At which point he stopped teasing and blandly but kindly informed me that it was guy-guy attraction or something like that… as if a straight sixth grader would really know, anyway. Then we went on about our day.

But I must have been impacted or confused pretty deeply on the subconscious level, or why would I remember that moment so clearly now?

So when it emerged officially in later years that most of the members of Queen were gay, and when Freddie Mercury became one of the first big stars to die of complications from AIDS, I can recall having such a strange mix of emotions.

I was also semi-aware that Freddie was not Caucasian (he was Parsi, an Indian culture descended from Iranian Zoroastrians –though he himself was born in Zanzibar, in present-day Tanzania, Africa). So that makes Farrokh Bulsara (aka Freddie Mercury) a major figure not only in the worldwide gay community, but also one of the biggest Asian stars in any field, ever.

Thus, here come those blockbuster-hunters again. If one is looking for the next Philadelphia or Milk or Ray or Walk the Line Oscar contender, Freddie’s story is the perfect vehicle. A British newspaper article said this about the project, also very encouraging news:

“The untitled film is being written by Peter Morgan, the British screenwriter behind The Queen, Frost/Nixon and The Last King of Scotland, producers said.”

Also heavily involved: guitarist extraordinaire Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, Mercury’s estate, and Queen’s management (sidenote: their catalog is owned by Disney now… ironic!)

And Sasha Baron Cohen has got to be the perfect casting choice in my book. One iconoclast playing another, and not a vain Hollywood prettyboy among them. As you can see from the photos above, Cohen even LOOKS alot like the mercurial Mercury. Then there’s the whole religio-ethnic “outsider” thing: Cohen’s a practicing, conservative British Jew, if you can believe that… or maybe he’s Orthodox… I’m so goy, what do I know?! (Despite living in an American Hebrew  “mecca”, Skokie, IL, and seeing Jewish believers walk to temple down my street every week.)

Anyway, I’m just pleased Cohen got the gig. ALI G. INDAHOUSE ! … with his moon rising in the house of Mercury. (Izzat Zoroastrian humor? Boy, you’re an eclectic one, too…)

While we’re at it, let me confess that I think the totally tasteless Borat is hands-down the most original and funniest movie I’ve seen in the past decade or more. It’s fast becoming the blueprint for dozens of other reality-show-mimicking underground comedies, and Cohen is a huge talent, with a lot more range as an actor than one would think. I’d call him Britain’s Bill Murray, personally.

So I’m looking forward to yet another trip down memory lane to ’75 sometime next year, when the long-in-production biopic about Queen and Freddy Merc is slated to appear (though they have not attached a director yet as of October, 2010).   I for one, will probably pop open a bottle of Moet & Chandon… a pricey brand of champagne referenced in the first line of the 1974-75 song Killer Queen — though I didn’t know that EITHER, until about seven years ago. (Idiot.)

Shows how naive a suburban kid from Chicago can be, even when he ain’t a kid anymore.

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