There is risk in humanizing someone so much larger than life as Freddie Mercury. The larger than life personality, the larger than life stage presence, the larger than life voice, these are all the things that draw people to him, that give him the very magnetism that made him a superstar. If an author is to talk about the life of an artist like Freddie Mercury, to make him seem ordinary, to make him seem merely human, is to reduce the audience’s opinion of that artist. Whatever the author’s intent, there is a risk of coming off as salacious.
Mark Blake treads this line carefully, which is to his book’s benefit. Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Life is an oversized, glossy, picture-filled coffee table book with only about 200 pages of actual text to work with. In those 200 pages is something like Mercury’s entire life, with room for his childhood, the early bands he bounced around with, his time with Queen, and his untimely and tragic passing. The limits on the amount of text mean that there are no true deep dives on any one topic; what Blake chooses to shine a light on are those anecdotes, those few little details, and those grand gestures—all very human pieces to Mercury’s story—that contributed to his legend. Nearly anyone who picks up An Illustrated Life will have a predefined idea of Freddie Mercury; Blake’s book is a marvelous document of how we came to accept that idea as truth.
Much of the more fascinating material appears right at the outset, as we travel with Farrokh Bulsara from Zanzibar, to Mumbai, back to Zanzibar, and finally to England, and we learn about a motivated, persistent child who has no time for anything he’s not interested in. Pictures of the man we would come to know as Freddie—who asked his English friends to call him Freddie as he searched for a sense of belonging—in boarding school uniforms, with pompadours and mop-tops, with friends from his various schools, all dot the early stages of An Illustrated Life. Here, he’s precocious and innocent; even as he transitions to adulthood, his single-minded pursuit of fame and belonging via music is childlike in his drive. One amusing anecdote details a fellow student glimpsing the “occupation” box on Mercury’s (then still Bulsara’s) passport, listing his occupation as “musician”. When asked why, Mercury responds: “Because I’m going to be a musician.” (p.33)
Of course, he realizes these lofty aspirations in the wildest of ways. An Illustrated Life spends most of its time with Queen, offering bits and pieces behind the making of each album, alongside photographs to match. To Blake’s credit, he treats all of the albums (that Freddie was alive for) essentially as equals, taking care not to let classics like A Night at the Opera (1975) outshine relative flops like Hot Space (1982) in this particular story. The photographs are at least as interesting as the stories throughout, with iconic classics like Mick Rock’s cover of 1974’s Queen II (which the band would of course reprise in the music video for “Bohemian Rhapsody”) sitting alongside candids that look like intimate family photographs; here’s the band eating together, here’s the band laughing together, here’s the band posing for a ridiculous photo in ridiculous outfits and wry smiles. Freddie is, of course, the unquestioned focal point of nearly all of these photographs, nearly as magnetic in his facial expressions as he was in his music.
Blake’s book falters, however, when he chooses to editorialize. Through much of An Illustrated Life, Blake stays a step away from the material he’s covering, meticulous in the anecdotes and details he includes but rarely inserting his own thoughts or opinions into the text. Most of the opinions he does have are typically expressed through benign, virtually unassailable words like “benign”, “memorable”, “dangerous”, and so on—words so matter of fact as to lose their power as opinions. The impartial observer role he plays here takes a hit late in the story, once Mercury has passed and the band is trying to figure out what to do with themselves, their history, and Mercury’s legacy:
By 2000, Brian and Roger had released seven solo albums between them. But there was a nagging sense that they both wished they were still in Queen. A year later, they recorded a wretched new version of ‘We Are the Champions’ with ex-Take That member Robbie Williams, for the movie A Knight’s Tale. (p.197)
It’s not just the description of Williams’ version of “We Are the Champions” as “wretched” that seems forced, though that on its own is a jarring insertion, even with (or perhaps because of) a dismissive quote from John Deacon that immediately follows. The mind reading that’s going on there, the unsupported “nagging sense” that Blake refers to, feels like one inference too far. Blake makes his opinion known again not long after when he says of Adam Lambert, “Queen would have struggled to find a better understudy.” (p.198) Clearly, the topic of “replacing” Mercury in Queen is a contentious one, but Blake could have done a better job of leaving his own thoughts out of the discussion and letting his readers come to their own opinions. There are other moments throughout the book when Blake inserts himself, but this is the most obvious and egregious.
This is a minor point, however, in what is otherwise a successful telling of the stories, the fables, the parables, and the odysseys that led Queen, and particularly Freddie Mercury, to the top of whatever mountain Mercury happened to be climbing. An Illustrated Life reinforces Mercury as one of a kind, not without faults but most certainly destined to be a star. It’s worth a quick read, preferably accompanied by Queen’s Greatest Hits at max volume on a good set of speakers.
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