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Music Blu-ray/CD Review: Queen – Hungarian Rhapsody – Queen Live in Budapest

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“This is a night we’ll never forget,” Freddie Mercury told a very appreciative Hungarian audience of 80,000 fans during Queen’s July 27, 1986 performance. While no one knew this would be their final concert of their last tour, all involved knew it was a historic event as Queen was the first rock band to play at the Népstadion in Budapest, three years before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Realizing the implications, the Hungarian authorities organized the best of their country’s filmmakers to capture the event for posterity. Now, there’s no question that the remastering of these sounds and visions into high definition and 5.1 surround sound gives Queen fans, new and old, a night to remember as well.

Modern viewers and listeners can enjoy the experience on DVD, Blu-ray, and/or CD, but the best bet is the “Deluxe Edition” with the Blu-ray and two CDs bundled together. If you’re like me, you’ll go for the concert film first. Throughout, it’s clear to see Queen was nothing short of a full band of strong-minded equals firing on all cylinders. Live, we can really hear the power and depth of Roger Taylor on drums, especially as he’s permitted to stretch out in many of the instrumental sections. We can see Freddie Mercury not only holding the audience in perfect awe—making them the fifth member of the band in the various sing-alongs—but showing off his often overlooked chops as a keyboard player. It’s wonderful to hear Brian May jamming on his own again, notably in the simply titled “Guitar Solo.”

From beginning to end, we see and hear a band at the peak of their powers not content to shoot for note-for-note recreations of their studio work, but rather shape performances aimed directly for those lucky enough to be filling the stadium seats. For the Magic tour, Queen drew from the full catalogue of their work but didn’t give the audience a mere greatest hits set list. Promoting their new A Kind of Magic release, they opened the show with their newest single, “One World”, the more familiar “Tie Your Mother Down,” and then offered a series of lesser-known album tracks like “In The Lap Of The Gods,” “Seven Seas Of Rhye,” and “Tear It Up.” After presenting the new “A Kind Of Magic” and 1981’s “Under Pressure,” they played the now poignantly prophetic “Who Wants To Live Forever” from Highlander and “I Want To Break Free.”

Then we hear a short set of May/Mercury acoustic numbers, “Now I’m Here,” “”Love Of My Life,” “Tavaszi Szél Vizet Áraszt,” and “Is This the World We Created…?” Following the quieter interlude, the full group gets back to rockin’ with a full-throated rendition of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and then a string of those great hits, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (with a noticeable pretaped insert of the choral section), “Hammer To Fall,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and “Radio Ga Ga.” For the encore, we get an extended medley of “We Will Rock You,” “Friends Will Be Friends” (also from A Kind of Magic), and “We Are The Champions.”

In the “Deluxe Package,” we also get expanded CDs of the concert with songs not included on either the DVD or Blu-ray versions available separately as discs or downloads. On disc one we hear “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Looks Like It’s Gonna Be A Good Night – Improv.” Available On disc two, we hear “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” and “Hello Mary Lou (Goodbye Heart).” Why these songs didn’t make the final cut for the movie is anyone’s guess as there’s nothing lackluster about the performances. While “God Save the Queen” is included on the CD track list but not the Blu-ray or DVD, it’s there on all three formats. Likely it was felt 118 minutes and 22 songs were long enough for the movie, especially with a few minutes of behind-the-scenes footage interspersed from time to time to show Queen interacting with fans, signing autographs, and riding go-carts.

There’s also a superb bonus 25-minute documentary called “A Magic Year.” It chronicles what the band did after their appearance at Live Aid, their work on the score for Highlander (the soundtrack of which makes up most of the songs on A Kind of Magic) and their decision to go on a European tour ending with the Budapest gig. It’s chock-full of behind-the-scenes studio footage and very revealing interviews from the band members, notably the rarely interviewed John Deacon who talks about his contributions to the band beyond his bass playing.

A case can be made encouraging viewers to watch the documentary first to fully understand the context of the Hungarian concert. All these years later, we look back and hear some songs as almost prophetic in light of the passing of Mercury. But back then the emphasis was the band reaching an audience they hadn’t played for before, not expecting to make any money but rather contributing a crack to the grip of the Iron Curtain.

While long available in other formats, viewers who saw the original video tapes or laser-disc editions seem to agree the new Hungarian Rhapsody, presented with an aspect ratio of 1.77:1, is a dramatic improvement both sonically and visually. Director János Zsombolyai, producer George Mihály, and cinematographer Elemér Ragályi and their team of nearly 20 cameramen deserve considerable credit for filming 35 mm footage that looks, in the main, pristine on screen 26 years after the recording. True, it took two songs for all the cameras to be coordinated perfectly, especially those on Taylor, but for most of the concert we get to see Queen from every angle imaginable. The close-ups are better than the long shots, which means the on-stage colors are perhaps too vivid for those mid-’80s fashions. We hear the audience in the back channels of the 5.1 mix, but they disappear in the very dark stadium lighting. As the 1080p transfer used an interpositive and not the original negatives, there’s some graininess, but few viewers will be distracted by this mark of authenticity.

There are two mixes, a 5.1 DTS-HD High Resolution 96/24 mix (not lossless), and an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mix. Both are very strong, although Deacon’s bass doesn’t get the weight of the other instruments in either mix. It’s very evident this was recorded in a large venue with the sound system set to accommodate Mercury’s powerful delivery and dynamics, and here is where the DTS version really demonstrates what it was like to be there live. I envy those who got to see the film in theatres when it was released worldwide on September 20, 2012 who no doubt got to experience the sound in an even fuller spacial range.

Hungarian Rhapsody completes a very good year for Queen fans after the releases of the new package of Greatest Video Hits and both the documentary and book sharing the title the Great Pretender, two tributes to Mercury. Who wants to live forever? We can’t, but some music certainly will, and the legacy of Queen likely will, especially when presented in such exquisite packages.

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About Wesley Britton