The Living and the Dead

When I saw this video in October, I could not stop crying. Of course I have heard this song but never before it struck me with such force and power. Overcome with emotions, I decided to write down my thoughts – and this is how my Russian essay was created. And now I feel the need to put it into English; we will see how it goes.

This video appeared as a promotion of the forthcoming deluxe set of Queen’s News of the World. Initially composed and performed by Brian May, this version features Freddie Mercury’s lead vocals; and for this song Unanico Studios created a cartoon showing a little black cat running through some dark pipes, mechanisms, jumping over gears – until she manages to slip outside. And only then the audience realizes that all this time we saw the insides of Frank the robot from the cover of News of the World. He lies there in the grass, dying, lit by the afternoon sun. The cat curls up on his gigantic hand and falls asleep.

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So what is it all about? According to the songwriter, it is a tribute to a cat, his childhood friend that lived with him for many years; more generally, it tackles loss, a theme that will dominate Brian’s songs a decade later. The lines “I should not grieve / In time it comes to everyone” give me shivers because this was written way before the 90ies, and in many ways can be regarded as prophetic. Now, hearing Freddie’s voice, we cry for him, as well as for other losses we all experienced in our own lives. A similar transformation happened to another Queen song “These Are the Days of Our Lives” – born as a dedication of Roger Taylor to his kids, it later transformed into Freddie’s last farewell to the world.

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I can also see yet another layer of meaning, encoded in the imagery created by Unanico Studios, namely, the influence of Miyazaki’s style and mood, as seen in many of his movies but in particular, in Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986). In this film, the heroes end up on Laputa, a surreal green island suspended in the sky, where they meet its only inhabitant, a robot that takes care of birds and animals that roam freely on Laputa. However, soon we find out that these robots can turn into deadly weapons of mass destruction (when fallen into wrong hands). Before that, one of the protagonists becomes a witness of massacre performed by one of these robots – however, he saves her from the fire.

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Now let’s take a look at the haunting images of the News of the World album cover art. On the front, we see Frank the Robot holding murdered Queen members in his hand; on the back, his gigantic hand is reaching for a panicking crowd. However, the look on his face is childish and naive, and even a bit sad. We all know that the original image of Frank came from the cover of the sci-fi journal showing the same robot holding a dead man, with a caption “Please… fix it, Daddy?” (Queen loved it so much that they found the artists and asked him to design a cover art for their album). With all his monstrosity, Frank is actually a child that forgot himself accidentally killing a butterfly. And in this childishness he reminds us of robots from Laputa, with their disproportionately elongated arms and weird bodies, as if taken from a child’s drawing.

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Although Laputa floats in the sky it is no paradise; its underground conceals lethal machinery able to destroy the whole world if it falls into the wrong hands. And surely, this is what happens in the movie; a raving maniac kills dozens of people, and poor soldiers fall into the abyss as dry leaves, or as Frank’s victims. To stop him, the heroes destroy these machines, and all these towers and halls of the ancient city crumble down. The only thing that survives is the huge tree that holds the island together, and the gardens that surround it, with birds, small animals, and a robot that protects them. The island raises even higher and forever disappears from our sight.

In the music video, similarly to the heroes of “Laputa,” Pixie the cat is finding her way through the world of mechanisms, wheels, gears, and underground passages, wishing to reach the sunlight, until she peeks through a round window (Frank’s eye) and sees the sky with the sun and clouds… The song’s lyrics lead her through the darkness to freedom, sometimes catching her, sometimes lighting the way, or sometimes helpfully turning into stairs. As in “Laputa”, the machinery is dead, and a scary killer robot is lying in the grass and nobody is afraid of him anymore. But a living creature stays, and the cat, after getting out into the air, calmly curls up on the hand of the dying robot.

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I think that though the song was written about grief and loss, the music video ended up showing how life overcomes death. We feel great sadness losing the sight of a beautiful heavenly island but we know that it keeps on floating somewhere above the roof of the world. We grieve as we lose our loved ones – but of course we cannot believe that they are gone forever and continue to live in hope.

All dead all dead
But in hope I breathe
Of course I don’t believe
You’re dead and gone

Katya Neklyudova, 2017