SoundTreks | Highlander
30 years ago this March, Russell Mulcahy’s cult fantasy flick Highlander was released into theaters to minimal success and scant critical acclaim. But the film has since developed an enormous cult following, likely due to its carefully constructed mythology; Highlander, if you’re unfamiliar, is about a race of immortal beings living amongst humans, who can only be killed by decapitation. If another immortal kills them, the killer absorbs their strength in a process called The Quickening. Over the centuries, immortals have been killing one another in the hopes of a mythic Prize; the last immortal standing will, essentially, be granted one wish. This premise has extended into several Highlander sequels (including an anime film), as well as a TV series which lasted a surprising 119 episodes. A remake has been trying to get off the ground for almost a decade.
Highlander also featured one of the best soundtracks of any 1980s film. Queen, one of the best rock bands of all time, contributed nine of their songs to the movie, giving the film a hefty, melodramatic bombast that no other band could have provided. When collected, the Highlander soundtrack is, more or less, a pretty damn awesome Queen record.
It was also never made. Despite having nine tracks by one of the most forceful of all rock bands, the studio never managed to compile and release an actual soundtrack record. Queen took most of these songs and put them onto their 1986 record “A Kind of Magic,” which may serve as an ersatz soundtrack to Highlander.
But what would the Highlander soundtrack have sounded like? And would it be as great a listen on vinyl as it was in the movie? SoundTreks is here to find out. We’ve compiled all the songs from the movie, and we’re going to be listening to them one at a time as a soundtrack experience. Join us. This way, we all get a Prize.
Track 1. “A Kind of Magic”
Queen was very devoted to Highlander, practically writing a rock opera to run parallel to the movie. Several of their Highlander songs address the events and details of the movie very closely, including “A Kind of Magic” which was how Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) describes his own immortality. In the movie, Connor is somewhat tortured by his deathlessness, but the song is not at all angsty. Indeed, it’s bright and fun and optimistic. Being immortal may be sad, but sometimes it can be magical.
The song on the record is different than the one in the movie. The movie version wasn’t released in album form until 2011.
Track 2. “One Year of Love”
“Just one year of love is better than a lifetime alone.” I can listen to Freddie Mercury croon anything. This is one of the central love songs from Highlander, and I imagine it’s meant to be the song that Connor’s soul sings to his departed wife who died hundreds of years ago. Fleeting love can dominate your life, even if you live for centuries. This is an achingly romantic notion that can only be contained in a big love song like this one. It’s not necessarily one of Queen’s better love songs, but it fits into Highlander well.
Track 3. “Who Wants to Live Forever”
Given Freddie Mercury’s death in the early 1990s, it’s easy to see this song as a comment on his own life. In actuality, it was a direct reference to the literal immortality in Highlander. The song is a barn-burner, of course (most Queen ballads are), but it may be a little too on the nose. This song is having me suspect that the “A Kind of Magic” record is actually a concept album version of Highlander. Or that perhaps Queen was expecting Highlander to be a stage musical at some point. In that musical, “Who Wants to Live Forever” would be the central love ballad.
Track 4. “Hammer to Fall”
“Hammer to Fall” is actually from Queen’s 1984 album “The Works,” and appears in Highlander over a car radio. This song, as far as I can interpret, is not meant to comment on the action of the movie, but only adds to a general auditory motif. If it were to appear on a soundtrack record, it would be an interlude. An intermission. A fun dance number on the way to the bigger, more significant numbers.
Track 5. “Princes of the Universe”
Fuck. Yes. “Prince of the Universe” is, more or less, the central theme song for Highlander. If Highlander were a stage musical, this would open the show. It would be performed by the full cast. It would have flashpots and fireworks. It would be reprised at the end. It’s that strong and awesome a song. A good use for this song: Play it the exact same way John Williams uses his huge fanfare at the beginning of all the Star Wars movies. Play “Princes of the Universe” while text crawls on the screen. That’s one epic fucking movie.
Track 6. “Gimme the Prize (Kurgan’s Theme)”
The Kurgan, played by Clancy Brown, is the central villain of Highlander, and “Gimme the Prize” is a first-person declaration of power and villainy. The POV of the song, as well as the name of the villain in the titular parenthetical, is only supporting my theory that Highlander – at least in the minds of Brian May and Freddie Mercury – was a stage musical first and a movie second. “I am the one, the only one. I am the God of Kingdom Come.” It goes on to describe squeezing kings in your fists and even more massive hyperbole. It also features a dark rocking guitar riff, which, in metal language, translates to villainy. It’s the best Disney villain song that never appeared in a Disney film.
Track 7. “A Dozen Red Roses for My Darling”
This piece did not make it onto “A Kind of Magic.” This is an intense instrumental that was, from the sound of it, always intended to be played under a fight scene or a chase scene. The sound is unlike anything in the rest of the movie, and you would be forgiven for thinking it was a sample of an Art of Noise track rather than something put together by Queen. This is, essentially, Queen’s only foray is composing a film score.
That is, until you realize that it’s just an instrumental version of “Don’t Lose Your Head.” We’ll get to that in a second.
Track 8. “New York, New York”
A complete version of Queen’s cover of Kander and Ebb’s famed “New York, New York” cannot be found anywhere. It never made its way onto any of Queen’s records, and, since there was never a soundtrack record for Highlander, it never made it out into the public. You can’t even find a complete version of it on YouTube; the video below is one of the most complete fragments available. I feel like cultural excavators need to get on this, and start delving in earnest. It’s a pretty amazing cover, as you would assume, which sounds very little like any of the usual standard versions.
Track 9. “Don’t Lose Your Head”
So we already had an instrumental version of this one. Now we have the lyrics. The title, as you have guessed, is not a metaphor. This is a song that literally addresses the decapitation notion of the immortal lifestyle. I like it better as a metaphor. When you apply the Highlander text to it, it becomes cheesier.
Which is Better: The Imaginary Soundtrack or the Movie?
The album is better. Oh I do like Highlander, don’t get me wrong, but the music speaks to an emotionally larger story than the one we got. Queen heard the tale of Highlander, and turned in numerous songs that spoke to something more bombastic than the movie even attempted. Their songs speak to the ideal version of the movie. The movie is just the movie version of the movie.
Indeed, now that I’ve heard all the songs together in a lump, I more than ever want the unrealized and never-even-proposed stage version of Highlander to be made immediately. I want Queen to come back, write a dozen more songs, and put on one of the most amazingly glam Broadway productions that the White Way has ever seen. The unreleased record speaks the story of Highlander just as strongly as the movie, only with a much more expansive cannon blast of operatic feeling.
The downside to this imaginary album: It’s incomplete. We’re really only looking at a few songs here. The soundtrack record, no matter how one would arrange it, only ever feels like a sampler of a much bigger concept album. If Queen made a double album – maybe 25 songs – exploring the plight of an immortal doomed to fight and lose all his mortal loves, then you’d have the best glam rock album of the 1970s (only made in 1986). That album would be the stuff of legend. Ditch the movie, and listen to that record instead.
Sadly, that record was never made. No record was ever made. What we do have is an entertaining movie with an awesome myth, a fun Sean Connery performance, a sweet villain, and some kickass songs. That, friends, can be more than enough.
Top Image: 20th Century Fox
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.