The performance opened with drummer Roger Taylor thundering out the iconic drumbeat of “We Will Rock You” as Lambert, clad in a sparkling turquoise jacket with black pants, a black shirt and black cravat, roared out the song’s lyrics, originally sung by Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS in 1991. The group quickly segued into “We Are the Champions,” moving quickly to the song’s rousing chorus as stars in the audience, from Tom Cruise to Octavia Spencer to Jennifer Lopez, could be seen singing along. A beaming Rami Malek, who portrays Mercury in the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” — nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Malek — was briefly shown seated in the crowd.
As the song raced to its conclusion, Lambert and guitarist Brian May raced toward the front of the stage as the image of Mercury appeared on the screen behind them and fireworks cascaded from the ceiling.
While Lambert’s vocals are not featured in “Bohemian Rhapsody” — they’re either Mercury’s or those of soundalike Marc Martel — he has had a good run fronting Queen in the years since the three first appeared together when Lambert was a contestant on “American Idol” in 2009. The group began working together more seriously in 2011, launched a tour the following year and have done several treks, including a Las Vegas residency, since then.
The pairing makes sense multiple levels. Lambert, unquestionably one of the strongest singers to emerge from “Idol,” is versatile enough singer to cover Freddie Mercury’s range; their voices are similar but not so much that Lambert falls into tribute-singer territory; and the fact that he rose to fame singing covers on “Idol” somehow makes his role in Queen an easier fit than another vocalist more associated with a different band and song catalog, as was the case with former Bad Company and Free singer Paul Rodgers, who sang with Queen previously.
The performance marks a rare instance where a music spot on the Oscars might be considered one of the show’s biggest ratings-baiting “gets,” between the movie’s blockbuster success ($212 million in the U.S. to date, and a worldwide cume of $854 million) and the fact that Queen itself is undyingly popular (the song that gave “Bohemian Rhapsody” its title was named in December as the most streamed song ever that originated in the 20th century). While “Bohemian Rhapsody” takes considerable liberties with the group’s history, the power of the band’s music and a spellbinding performance from Malek have overshadowed most of the criticism.
Watch the performance below: