On August 1st, 1981, a new channel called Music Television (or “MTV” for short) hit the airwaves, beginning a decade-and-change run exclusively showing a film form combining the advertisement and the short subject known as “music video.” Of course, MTV didn’t invent the music video, as music and songs had been part of cinema virtually since the medium’s inception, only gaining more prominence as the years continued. The music video’s biggest innovation as a format was in allowing music to have total dominance over the narrative—unlike a film score which sees music supporting the action, or an integrated musical which necessitates plot being furthered by song, a music video defers to the song at all times, throwing out logic, structure, or coherence if need be.
1980’s Flash Gordon, while far from the mess that it was dismissed as upon its initial release, is a movie that similarly isn’t too concerned with such elements. Intended by producer Dino De Laurentiis as a competitor to Star Wars, the movie’s world-building is a little haphazard. However, it endures and remains a rousing and incredibly enjoyable film to this day thanks to the score by the band Queen. Their music fills the film so much that it drives it, turning Flash Gordon into one of the earliest examples of a “music video” movie.
The “music video” movie isn’t always an intentional form, per se—when a film isn’t about a musical group yet features a pop music score, it’s something that can happen accidentally, usually with movies that emphasize style over substance. Whatever else you can say about it, Flash Gordon has an abundance of style.. De Laurentiis originally wanted Federico Fellini to direct the film, and while the movie ended up in the hands of Mike Hodges, a Fellini vibe can still be seen in the movie’s opulent, lavish sets and costumes. The effects sequences, especially those regarding the depiction of Mingo City, recalls prior De Laurentiis psychedelic productions such as Barbarella and Danger Diabolik (both 1968). Virtually the entire cast are supermodel-pretty, and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s knowingly camp take on the material is picked up by Hodges, allowing his actors to go as broad as they like. No element of the film is understated, and while its brazen outré earnestness causes some to find it unintentionally hilarious, it’s intentionally pitched so highly that only an equally outrageous music score could balance its elements.
Queen were a natural choice to provide such a score. Not only did their brand of geek culture-infused prog rock help them rise to prominence during the ‘70s, but they were one of the early pioneers of the music video itself. While musicians and bands had been experimenting with short films promoting themselves and their songs since the ‘50s, the music video form began to coalesce in the mid-‘70s. Queen’s 1975 Bruce Gowers-helmed clip for “Bohemian Rhapsody” not only helped solidify the band’s visual style but continued to get airplay for decades to follow. Bands creating a visual as well as aural signature for themselves had become common by that time, thanks to films starring such acts as the Beatles (whose A Hard Day’s Night from 1964 could be considered the first proper music video movie) and the Who, and the movie soundtrack had gained popularity in the pop music world thanks to films like 1977’s Saturday Night Fever (which leaned heavily on the music of the Bee Gees, though that score wasn’t primarily by the group). Music acts had done full-length original scores for non-musical films before, such as Issac Hayes’ score for 1971’s Shaft and Curtis Mayfield’s work on 1972’s Super Fly. Yet Queen raised the stakes with Flash Gordon, creating a score in conjunction with composer Howard Blake that doesn’t just support the film, but takes it over completely.
Queen’s work turns Flash Gordon into a hybrid of musical and rock concert, giving the film a propulsive pace that it otherwise might not have. With the rousing strains of “Flash’s Theme,” the score opens with a song that is all at once an overture, a Greek-chorus-esque statement about Our Hero (“he’ll save every one of us!”) and the first movement of a rock opera. As the score continues, the band weaves in Brian May’s guitars and the band’s synths, blending them with Blake’s orchestra. Remarkably, it avoids sounding like numerous other genre scores of the period—the work of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith had made Wagnerian-style symphonies the norm. The score was written and arranged in the same manner the band had constructed their previous albums, with each band member taking the composing reins for alternating cues, allowing for variety in the music without turning things into a jukebox.
Each cue sounds like a song sans vocals (though Freddie Mercury’s soaring voice occasionally provides some wordless accompaniment or short lyrical reprises). In place of sung lyrics, Queen treat the film’s dialogue as spoken word, integrating it with their music so much that they make sure to include large swathes of dialogue on the album itself. It’s a choice that somewhat predates Quentin Tarantino’s soundtrack albums, which include dialogue tracks but keep them separate from the music. By contrast, Queen blend Flash Gordon’s dialogue with their score to make the entire film a sort of musical or operetta.
For that reason, Flash Gordon is a genuine thrill to watch, a film that’s more of an experience than a grounded, traditional piece of cinema. It works like most classic music videos work, providing a constant stream of stunning and imaginative visuals while musical accompaniment keeps proceedings moving, despite any lapses in logic. In that way, it perhaps taught Hollywood some bad lessons, signaling to producers and music supervisors that loud and fast needle drops could paper over subpar material. Yet it also paved the way for a decade that fell in love with the music video, so much so that films primarily featuring source music—from genuine musicals such as Footloose to not-quite-musicals like Flashdance and Top Gun—became an accepted norm. It also opened the door for bands and musicians to become film composers, turning some of the movies they work on into de facto visual albums, like 2010’s Daft Punk-scored Tron: Legacy.
Whatever the case, there’s no denying the vibrant exuberance of Flash Gordon as a musical experience. The film’s end credit song, “The Hero,” functions as a summation of the score, the movie and its themes like a final symphonic movement. It also rocks so hard that it climaxes with the sound of a literal explosion. It’s a wild and fantastic choice that marries the music with the film’s images, entwining them inextricably. Flash Gordon may not have a ton of character and narrative depth, yet it is truly transportive, making a story about a goofy football player and Hawkmen and the like not just acceptable but even transcendent. Like walking away from a great rock concert with your ears still ringing, like watching a music video that blows your mind, the film and Queen’s score are more than the sum of their parts.