The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON: THE QUEEN + ADAM LAMBERT STORY is a thinly-disguised short biography of the rise and rise of Adam Lambert; Queen is not exactly an afterthought, but how are you gonna compress nearly 5 decades of grandiose musical history into 1 hour and 25 minutes? Something’s gotta give.
That’s no disrespect to Brian May and Roger Taylor; they are gods. They don’t need the airtime. Directors Christopher Bird and Simon Lupton know that the story of Queen is embedded in Earth’s bloodstream (like the Titanic or Batman’s origin… See? I don’t even have to say “guitarist” Brian May or “drummer” Roger Taylor – if you don’t know them, you probably don’t know Santa Claus or Luke Skywalker either), so this documentary only need gloss over the majesty of the band’s history and its near-dissolution after Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991; we see Live Aid 1985, Freddie’s Tribute Concert 1992, the musical We Will Rock You 2002, the last video John Deacon filmed with Brian and Roger in 1997 (Brian’s heart-rending farewell to Freddie, called No One But You, doubly sad because Deacy retired with that video, never to be seen or heard with Queen again), the 2004 quasi-magic of Queen + Paul Rodgers, eventually arriving at the defibrillator to Queen’s legendary career – Adam Lambert.
Born 1982, a native of Indianapolis, Indiana, Adam Mitchell Lambert sprang fully formed onto the international scene with his scintillating AMERICAN IDOL performances in 2009. We see Adam’s audition before the IDOL judges, with Simon Cowell vacillating over Adam’s voice being “theatrical” (a trait he no doubt picked up in numerous stage musicals, including WICKED), almost squelching Adam’s one-in-a-million opportunity to be injected into the world, Cowell admitting only now that he wasn’t in a good mood that day, and then confessing, “He’s one of my favorite contestants ever.”
After a season of burning down every comer with his galactic throat, in THE worst voting decision ever made on Earth (not counting Vladimir Putin’s bitchpig), Adam was the RUNNER-UP of that 8th season, losing to a faceless cherryboy; however the fact that he did not win was probably the best thing that ever happened to Lambert – because if he had won, IDOL would have set him on a vanilla trajectory with their own producers and writers, and disallowed him to go off the deep flamboyant end with which he ultimately carved his iconoclastic career.
Only after Queen had toured with Lambert for two years (starting in 2012 with a massive show in Kiev, and then an iHeartRADIO performance in Vegas in 2013) – only then did this Queen fanatic take Lambert’s presence seriously enough to investigate what all the fuss was about. Put it this way: If Sean Penn thinks you’re a good enough actor to be cast in a movie he’s directing, then you’re not just “good enough” – you’re great! Likewise, if Brian May thinks you’re good enough to front his musically superlative band, you’re not just “good enough” – It’s a Kind of Magic!
And when I looked into Lambert all those years ago – starting with IDOL and working forward – this young necromancer’s sheer mastery of his craft overwhelmed me, hurled me backwards with his unbridled virtuosity. And with shock, with sadness, I realized… my own vocal heroes from ages past have been superseded by this newer model. (And what a model!)
Is Adam Lambert the best vocalist in the world at this moment?
Toward the end of that 2009 IDOL season, Cowell openly gushed at Lambert: “Over the entire season, you have been one of the most original contestants we’ve ever had on the show. And the whole idea about doing a show like this is that you hope that you can find a worldwide star. I genuinely believe with all my heart that we have found that with you.”
The AMERICAN IDOL freeloaders who call themselves judges touted Lambert “in a league of his own” – maybe they’ve used that phrase on others, I wouldn’t know, I don’t watch that glorified karaoke dreck – but they actually got it right with this cosmic vocalist!
But we don’t need Simon Cowell to corroborate Lambert’s searing talent. Hear the high praise from a god among men, Dr. Brian May: “That is a voice beyond any expectation. Some people realize, but I don’t think the world at large quite realizes how amazing Adam is as a singer.”
Some might opine: Of course it behooves May to extol Lambert’s ability – to sell tickets for their shows. But those cynics miss the point: Brian May would not let anyone INTO his band as the frontman – the person most scrutinized due to Freddie Mercury’s enduring legacy – UNLESS that person was of such monumental caliber. (And if you want to focus on the capitalistic angle: If May did let a flounder in, word would get out, ticket sales would flop, chaos and looting in the streets…)
Besides Cowell, many talking heads gush over the rejuvenated Queen and the spark of fate that went into their pairing with Lambert: along with May, Taylor and Lambert themselves (May’s magnificent hair still a crowning leonine glory, unchanged since his step into the limelight in 1973, except now white with age), there’s Taylor Hawkins (from Foo Fighters – whose inspiration was Roger Taylor, and who looks, coincidentally enough, exactly like Roger’s son Rufus, who drums for The Darkness); there’s Joe Jonas, Rami Malek, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott (who holds the distinction of being “the first person to sing with Queen after Fred died” – he performed the opening song at Freddie’s Tribute Concert), Queen’s faithful keyboardist, Spike Edney, radio host Paul Gambaccini, music journalist Lyndsey Parker, and Sirius XM’s Nik Carter. Lambert’s parents Eber and Leila also feature during the obligatory kid-growing-up montage.
There’s an evocative shot that shows Freddie on a screen during interviews or live shows, seen through a Queen drumkit and Brian’s Red Special on a stand. Brilliant shot, that reminds us Freddie is being seen as if through obstacles, a memory, a wraith beyond the reality.
Roger Taylor says, “It took us five years to get over Freddie.” But, my dear, who says you got over him? The funniest thing about this doc is – they include interviews with Freddie as if he’s still alive and part of the game. Because he is. He turns up at every Queen concert. In spirit? No, in reality – that’s Freddie’s image and audio on the big screens, spliced into the live performances of Love Of My Life and Bohemian Rhapsody. An amazing technical achievement, that I’m sure causes untold anxiety to the crew members responsible for keeping those files alive and well. I’m sure there are numerous copies and they’ve all been transferred to digital blips, but still, think about how they’ve got to ensure against deterioration in any way – to retain the correct key, the sync with the band, the visual clarity, to make Freddie be right there with us night after night.
This feature attempts to give Freddie equal time only because it knows it is focused on Adam. And it is trying to say – without offending anyone – what we all know to be true…
Brian says here, “The task of finding one person who could do everything that Freddie could do would’ve been pretty much impossible. The whole range of Queen songs is considerable. It’s a very, very colorful catalogue, with all kinds of different vocal approaches needed.”
And we recall Adam’s fateful IDOL season and his rainbow-colored catalogue, performing Michael Jackson’s Black Or White (excellent rendition! Gave us an appreciation of how powerful Jackson’s performance was and – now I’m singing Lambert’s version in my head, instead of Jackson’s); Aerosmith’s Cryin’ (Oh my! Those highs actually outscale Tyler’s range!); Smokey Robinson’s Tracks Of My Tears (allowing it to simmer with his own passion; subtlety and soulfulness that shocked even Smokey himself); Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire (pulled apart and done so uniquely that Cowell replied from his limbic caveman brainstem that he couldn’t understand it). Those are only a few high points in a season exploding at the seams with jaw-dropping performances that left his “competition” floundering at his heels. (And what high heels!)
Yet he lost. (Democracy at work. Allowing the Great Unwashed to vote – never a good thing.)
Runner up to… to… uh… Don’t look him up! I dare you to tell me from memory who won the 2009 AMERICAN IDOL season. Know him or not, that winner is not without his own worth as a vocalist. Hell, he made the finals and actually slipped through a crack in destiny and won! But he is the epitome of the “classical” idea of a modern average rock and roll vocalist: a good controlled voice with a modicum of emotive appeal, and a surfeit of introspection, like a James Taylor or John Mayer.
Adam Lambert, on the other hand, is a SUPERSTAR. In every respect. In the IDOL finale, he would team with two of my heroes – KISS and Queen! And thence did Lambert’s “theatricality” serve him like a snake-god, amongst the uber-theatricality of those international acts, as his magnetic stage presence and Asgardian voice pummeled his co-finalist into a fine powder. Both the finalists were teamed with Queen and we could clearly hear cherryboy pulling away from his mic when the towering range of We Are The Champions was defeating him, letting Adam take the brunt of the skyscraper vocals. (By Brian May’s account, the IDOL finale is where they met Lambert for the first time. From there, the relationship would flower hesitantly over a few years before he was actually brought onboard.)
Cowell tried to keep his feet on the ground being “objective” but he was turned early, and we could peek through the cracks of his imperious facade to the closet Glambert beneath – because Adam is a force of nature that will not be denied; Randy Jackson didn’t hide his abiding love for Lambert: “a combination of Steven Tyler meets Fallout Boy meets Robert Pattinson from TWILIGHT. Dude, you should be a rock star right now.” And Paula Abdul just wanted to fuck him.
In finding the pitch and pocket to so many diverse songs, Lambert proves it is not just about singing high notes for the wow factor, but knowing when to utilize that limitless power; not just about singing words or striking poses, but possessing an innate understanding of putting the song across as emotively as possible. Years after those IDOL performances, he tells us here: “I’ve challenged myself to try to find my own personal connection to the lyrics of the songs, ‘cause I feel like, without that connection, it doesn’t really come alive for the audience.” However it’s obvious he didn’t just start that ethos with Queen, but was finding his way into songs way back then. His timbre at all ranges is unmatched by most singers in rock today, and by most singers of the past. And by most singers in rock today at their peak in the past. Yes, I’ve just blasphemed against all your heroes – AND MINE.
People are throwing virtual tomatoes at me even as I run for cover…
The heroes that made us cry in inspirational fervor, made us vow to die for our art. Relax, I’m not dissing those heroes, I’m saying that someone has joined their ranks.
What gives me the right? Well, I’m not some tweenie looking for a new fix and I’m not an unqualified AMERICAN IDOL judge; I’m an old, cynical musician who’s heard it all – the good, the bad, the lip-synched, the auto-tuned – and Adam Lambert vocalizes like an Olympic torch amongst this white noise of putrid mediocrity. We live in a society inured to superlatives, so I simply state my case. Adam Lambert – the whole package: voice looks, demeanor, CD sales, attitude, work ethic, wardrobe, image, performance – is the best vocalist in the world today. AND he’s got the stage strut, the arrogance, the humility, the self-effacing humor, the intelligence, the charm, the glam, the thrust, the hair, the heels…
Striking eyes, black-laquered fingernails, three-day growth and Elvis pompadour, classy interview subject, consummate performer – no matter he is an imposing 6’1″ – add those five-inch, jewel-studded, glam-slammin’ heels and he towers like the inferno he is.
APPLES TO APPLES: At their peak, Lambert is better than most of my idols, living or dead, and most of yours too, if you are truly objective. Of course, you LIKE Bon Scott’s road-rash voice better (so do I), but at an academic level, Adam Lambert can sing higher and clearer, and more powerfully. You may THRIVE on Dio’s hell-rageous timbre (I do), but Lambert brings a diversity to his range (which is wider than Dio’s) and timbral intensity that would make Dio praise Jesus not Satan. You may BLOW EARGASMS over Halford’s power-falsetto (I do), but though Lambert can do Halford (oh, do tell!), Halford cannot come down to Earth and coax a ballad as poignantly as Lambert. And I personally PREFER Queen’s last plus-vocalist, the gritty Paul Rodgers, on many Queen songs to Lambert (as many people PREFER Queen Extravaganza’s vocalist Marc Martel’s uncanny Mercury renditions, spouting their inane onanisms all over YouTube like jilted boyfriends), but Lambert – again – is THE WHOLE PACKAGE. As Queen says specifically right here, they hired Lambert because they did NOT want someone to simply copy Freddie…if you haven’t gotten it yet, Adam does this NATURALLY – it’s not an act, like Martel’s tribute imitation– Look, I love Martel’s inimitable godlike voice as well, but all you Marc Martel loonies, please stop with the wackadoo. You’re embarrassing us real Queen fans.
You may be enamored with Frank, Elvis, Dino, Sammy, Pavarotti, Jagger, Gillan, Springsteen, or enjoy the unique vocal stylings of Lindsey Buckingham, Tom Petty, Robert Plant, Don Henley, Geddy Lee, Sebastian Bach, Chris Cornell, Josh Groban, Steve Perry… All these men have distinctive voices that perfectly suit the music they purvey, and that’s what makes each of those voices equal and special. I am not arguing the case to replace their voices with Lambert’s on any of their recordings. No. Those songs, those artists, those performances remain thunderous jewels in the musical firmament. However, Lambert – at this moment in time – effortlessly trounces them all.
Then there are those whose time has sadly passed (Paul McCartney, Joe Elliott, David Coverdale, Roger Daltrey, Paul Stanley – whom Adam easily outsung in Detroit Rock City when standing beside him in that finale). Here’s the rub: Lambert is in his late 30’s; even at those artists’ peaks (their late 20s to early-40s), they could not match Lambert’s power and range. He truly is the new breed of genetically superior X-man. I don’t say any of this lightly. I grew up wanting Paul Stanley’s epitome of the American rock and roll voice; the same with Daltrey (so in love am I with that way of singing and phrasing, tonality, raunch, accent, everything). So it is with sorrow and regret that I see my heroes, my lodestars, pummeled by this homo superior. (And what a homo!)
And the greatest blasphemy/hardest truth to face: Is Adam Lambert better than Freddie Mercury?
The temple comes crashing down, the sun shivers, the planets quake, chaos and looting in the streets … Because that’s the wrong question. The question should be: Is Lambert filling Freddie’s shoes, and purveying the Queen catalogue respectfully? Freddie is irreplaceable as the force of nature he was; the songwriter, pianist, frontman, vocalist, arranger, original driving member of Queen. But as a live vocalist, Freddie had his shortcomings. (Queen apologists seem to have a tonal deficiency when defending Freddie against anyone else, not just Lambert.) Adam Lambert fulfills Freddie’s vocal duties better than Freddie at his peak. More tomatoes.
And Adam’s gay! Out, loud, proud. Meaning his natural flair for the flamboyant, coupled with his distinctly macho delivery, puts him closer to Freddie than any other singer in the galaxy. The video for his original single For Your Entertainment puts him 10 more notches closer to Freddie. (It’s interesting to note that when Queen first appeared live with Adam at Kiev, they garbed him in neutral all-black rocker duds with just a hint of flair. NOW get a load of him!) Look, I LOVED the Paul Rodgers era – it brought tears to my eyes that they recreated Queen so judiciously and raunchily – but Lambert is – like those AMERICAN IDOL judges said, in a class of his own.
Again, dangerous tomatoes.
But you don’t get to sing Who Wants To Live Forever (with its original melody lines, something that even Freddie – who voiced the original recording – could not do live) and NOT get to be one of the greatest singers in the world. Adam Lambert has truly placed Queen back In The Lap Of The Gods.
His humility still astounds me. Over the years one would think that the adulation would “get” to this young man thrust into a limelight more blinding than most people would experience in a lifetime. As Lyndsey Parker notes, “Adam had to do in his first show with Queen, what it took Queen and Freddie Mercury ten years to do.” That’s a layers-deep statement. There’s the surface tension of being able to command a crowd – that’s the easy part if you’re as gifted and extroverted as Adam; under that, there’s having to accept himself as a vessel toward which so much love is being directed, and to process that love – and then requite it – as if it were directed at HIM; this arena love accrued over decades by someone else! To put it in context, I would have respected and admired Lambert as a fantastic vocalist even if he were not in Queen… but the fact he has been inserted into a band which was a gigantic part of what I am today, a band which created inspiration, aspirations, conjures nothing but gleaming memories of a time when art was paramount, freedom was reality, and love was the answer; the fact Adam is plugged into those memory banks – now I looooove him. Chris Connelly from ABC News inadvertently comments on exactly this: “When we go and see their shows, we want them to take us in their time machine, back to when we were young.” That’s the irrational anomaly coming from fans, that this guy has to process on a global scale. It’s a mind-fuck – and Adam not only survived it – THRIVED on it!
It illustrates that the word “talent” has so many more layers than just doing the physical thing you are good at doing. Adam has to retain his larger-than-life persona while in the public eye, and yet continually rein in his ego because he is surrounded by legacy miles deep. That’s a tightrope very few humans could balance on, especially in the tripwire cancel-culture of today.
One last word on what makes Adam not just a mighty star, but an excellent person. Queen toured Japan in 2014 with Adam, and we see snippets of that tour intercut with Queen’s 1975 tour, when Brian, Roger, Freddie and John were young, vital, on fire! Adam muses: “What meant a lot to me about going back to some of these famous venues that Queen has stamped their mark on, was seeing Brian and Roger being nostalgic about it. That was really cool to be a part of those moments, of them recalling the first time they were there…” What a compassionate guy! Then, like his vocals, he takes it one step further than what we thought was the destination: “…and knowing there were members of the audience that were probably there the first time too.” He’s actually putting himself not just in the band’s shoes, but in the shoes of the audience as well! Now THAT’S empathy which I doubt any of us could compete with, at a depth we never even saw coming! The mark of a truly beautiful human.
But IS he the best vocalist in the world at this moment?
Brian: “The voice is stupendous. There is not another voice like that in this planet.”
Roger: “…he’s the best singer around. I don’t know anybody that can out-sing Adam Lambert.”
… and who are we to argue with gods?