Friday, April 12, 2013

The Lost Highlander Soundtrack: A Kind Of Magic by Queen

The movie projectionist must have liked the rock band Queen when I saw Highlander in 1986.  With each drumbeat from the opening song, "Princes of the Universe," my theater seat vibrated.  The jacked up volume thrilled me.  A sword fight in an underground parking lot ensued, and ended with the victor enveloped in electric energy.  Tire hubcaps blew off, car lights came on, engine hoods popped open, and windshields blasted into splinters, the grand finale to the opening soundtrack salvo.  What a cinematic moment.  Immortal princes battled each other throughout time.  “There can only be one,” we learn from Conner MacLeod, the lead character.  And for me, there could only be one full hearing of that soundtrack since I only saw the movie once.

Then I bought the Highlander Blu-ray last year with thoughts of those thumping theater speakers from my youth.  I waited for my wife to go out of town to a conference so I could test the limits of our surround sound system.  I couldn’t get the couch to vibrate, but I did scare the cat out of the living room.  After the movie ended I had to have the soundtrack.  I looked up Queen on iTunes.  Once again, my search proved a dead end.  A Highlander soundtrack did not exist.  I did a Google search and found all kinds of things about a television series which I’ve never seen.  

My first and only Queen soundtrack, Flash Gordon, is now hanging in an album frame since I no longer have a phonograph to play it.  I thought of downloading it as a salve to my disappointment.  I already had the Flash Gordon title song from Queen’s Greatest Hits I & II.  I checked out their other albums and discovered why, as a young teenager, I could never find the Highlander soundtrack.  An iTunes customer review (5 out of 5 stars) by Merlin Pendragon for Queen’s A Kind Of Magic explained everything:

“This album (A Kind Of Magic) is unofficially the soundtrack to the movie ‘Highlander’ - but only because Queen opted to release it before the movie’s debut.  There is no content on the album that is not part of the movie, and nothing from the movie left off of the album.  A wonderful showcase for the group’s range and flexibility, this album was under-appreciated when Queen first released it.  It took me 10 years to even find a copy - and I was looking for it!”

Obviously, I downloaded all the songs missing from my greatest hits compilations, including "Princes of the Universe" and the drumbeat anthem "Gimme the Prize (Kurgan's Theme)."  Victor Kruger, a Kurgan and the villain whose ancient Russian tribe threw children in with hungry dogs to fight for meat, speaks in his deep throated voice on the latter song: “I have something to say.  It’s better to burn out, than to fade away,” then hollers, “There can be only one.”  The immortals are battling for the Prize, and the Kurgan is ruthless in his pursuit to be the winner.  The song expresses this desire.  At the top of Freddy Mercury’s range (Queen’s lead singer) he literally belts out the words “Just gimme the prize.”  What a true battle anthem.

"One Vision" is similar, with lyrics about “one man, one goal, one mission,” a powerful song about MacLeod’s focus on the Prize.  The opening guitar riff also requires maximum volume.

Yet it’s not just battles that dominate this soundtrack. "Who Wants to Live Forever" gives us the love theme of the movie.  Conner MacLeod is immortal, but his wife, Heather, is not.  What a horrible fate, to watch the love of your life grow old and die.  The song lyrics reinforce this reality:

There’s no place for us.
There’s no chance for us.
All is decided for us.
This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us.

While this music plays, Conner comes home and calls out for Heather.  When she reveals herself, she’s an old woman.  The song ends with a profound question:

Who dares to live forever?
When love must die.

With Conner MacLeod the same young man as when he first met his wife, Heather has a final conversation with him:

Heather - “I’ve never really known...why you stayed?”
Conner - “Because I love you as much now as the first time we met.”
Heather - “And I love you.  I don’t want to die, I want to stay with you, forever.”
Conner - “I’d love that too.”
But they can’t stay with each other.  Conner’s mentor Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (Sean Connery) had warned MacLeod, “You must leave her my brother.”  Ramirez has lived for two thousand four hundred and thirty seven years and has had three wives over that time.  His last wife was a Japanese princess.  Her father made him a sword.  “It is the only one of its kind,” Ramizez said, “like his daughter.”  When she died, Ramirez was shattered.  “I would save you that pain,” he tells MacLeod, but Conner could not leave Heather.  Must his love die since he is immortal? 

"Who Wants To Live Forever," in my estimation, is one of the best fantasy love songs because of the questions it asks.  

But then Conner MacLeod wins the Prize, and he can finally grow old, have children, and die.  His immortal torment is over.  He has found a new love.  It is an upbeat ending, just like "A Kind of Magic," the title song to the album, that plays as the movie credits scroll down the screen.

What an amazing album.  I have but one criticism.  According to the iTunes Notes, the song "Pain So Close to Pleasure" “...didn’t appear in Highlander, but instead reveals Mercury’s love for classic Motown,” and describes it as a “real gem.”  I disagree.  I think it’s out of place and ruins the flow of the album.  But having said that, I think the iTunes Notes give the best description about Mercury’s singing of this music:

“Like the characters in Highlander, Mercury sings these songs not as a rock frontman, but as an immortal warrior.”

Check out Queen’s A Kind Of Magic and turn up the volume.  If you liked Highlander, I know you’ll want these songs.

(And a note to Merlin Pendragon: not everything from the movie made it into the album.  When the Kurgan kidnaps MacLeod’s new love interest and plays chicken with other cars and trucks on New York city streets, Queen plays its remake of New York, New York, another drumbeat anthem that is ever so cool.  Could you please track down this song too?)

By Mark Schelske