At the Height of Their Powers: ‘Hungarian Rhapsody: Queen Live in Budapest’

Some day, when you’re trying to explain to your grandchildren what stadium rock was all about, I recommend showing them Hungarian Rhapsody: Queen Live in Budapest, the concert film of Queen’s 1986 performance in Budapest. It’s not only a great concert film that captures the spirit of Queen at the height of their powers, but also documents an important moment in the history of Eastern Europe during the Cold War (something else you might have to explain to the grandkids).

Queen was riding high at the time of this concert, and their supreme confidence comes through in the film. Just a year before, they more or less stole the show at Live Aid, and the Budapest concert was part of their Magic Tour, performed to promote their album, A Kind of Magic. The tour sold out stadiums all over Europe, but the Budapest concert was particularly notable because it made Queen the first western band to perform a stadium show behind the iron curtain.

Sadly, the Budapest concert was part of the final tour Freddie Mercury would perform with Queen. No one knew that at the time, of course, but looking back, it makes the concert that much more poignant. That’s a third thing you might have to explain to the grandchildren: in the mid-’80s, there was no effective treatment for HIV infection or AIDS, and the reason Mercury stopped touring was became he became ill from, and later died of, complications from AIDS.

There’s no sadness in this concert, however, which is a celebration of everything that made Queen the supreme stadium band. Mercury is inexhaustible (legendary vocal nodes and all), his band mates are playing their hearts out, the lights are firing and the stage smoke is showing them off to full advantage.

Equally important, the audience is with the band every step of the way. One reason Queen could play stadiums and fill them up was because they had the ability to make everyone in the audience feel like they were part of a great occasion. That ability was on full display in Budapest, where an estimated 80,000 fans packed Budapest’s Népstadion (“people’s stadium”—this was during the Cold War, remember?) to hear Queen perform, making it the largest concert ever performed in that stadium.

The Hungarian government recognized the historic importance of this concert, and had it recorded using seemingly every 35 mm camera available in the country. The noted director and cinematographer János Zsombolyai, was hired to direct. The resulting film, recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray in a remastered edition, looks and sounds great, and accomplishes that most difficult task of giving home viewers a sense of the excitement of being at a live performance.

I don’t know how much footage was finally shot, or how long it took to edit it into this 118-minute film, but it must have been a lot, because the variety of angles and points of view is truly remarkable. So is the editing—although the cuts come fairly quickly, they never seem gratuitous, but instead function as a way to convey just how much was going on during the concert, both on stage and in the crowd.

Most of the concert consists of Queen’s well-known hits, although, to be fair, they had quite a few to choose from by 1986. Of course they perform “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Are the Champions”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “We Will Rock You”, and “Radio Ga Ga”—to fail to do so, particularly in such an historic concert, would have been like going to Paris and refusing to acknowledge the existence of the Eiffel Tower. But the band also found time to perform the Hungarian children’s song “Tavaszi Szél Vizet Áraszt”, to cut loose with “Tutti Frutti”, and to give Brian May an extended guitar solo.

As long as Hungarian Rhapsody sticks to presenting Queen’s concert performance, it never sets a foot wrong. Unfortunately, the film includes some fairly lame material as well, of the type that might be used on a local television station to promote the idea that the members of Queen are ordinary folks just like you and I. So you get to see Roger Taylor go-karting and Freddie Mercury sampling a local distilled beverage, and you quickly understand why none of them went into acting (well, Mercury might have made a go of it, but not the others). Fortunately, there’s not too much of this silly stuff in the main film.

Hungarian Rhapsody: Queen Live in Budapest released in a set with two CDs that include all the songs in the film, plus a few more. Besides the illustrated liner notes, the only other extra is a 26-minute documentary which intends to chronicle Queen’s “magic year” from Live Aid to the end of the Magic Tour, but feels cobbled together from grainy television footage and gushing endorsements from their contemporaries. None of that really matters, though, because the concert film is so good that it can easily stand on its own.

RATING 8 / 10