Cover Version Showdown #3

Queen, “Somebody to Love” – Anne Hathaway v MxPx

When my first marriage broke up, my nine-year-old daughter, who loved “The Princess Diaries” and “Ella Enchanted” (I can’t recall if we had let her watch ”The Devil Wears Prada”), told me I should date Anne Hathaway. It’s sort of awesome that my daughter – who clearly couldn’t see what a complete mess I was – thought that me dating a movie star was not completely implausible. Aw, children. We will never know how that might have turned out – I didn’t have Anne’s number at the time – and things have gone just fine for us both: Anne won an Oscar, and I, in my usual sort-of oblivious way, found my soulmate. But that alternate timeline is worthy of “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, or at least “Remedial Chaos Theory”.

I still haven’t seen Anne’s award-winning turn in “Les Miserables”, but parents of adolescent girls had long known she could carry a tune. The “Ella Enchanted” soundtrack was mostly covers of popular songs, and Anne showed she had chutzpah to spare by taking on a track originally sung by Freddie fucking Mercury.

Oh, Freddie. If he isn’t among your 10 greatest singers in rock history, I want to know who crowds him out of your personal selection, because I will take that person’s best track and crush it with Freddie’s 30th best. Queen are sort of overrated as a band – they made a lot of great singles, but the deeper cuts on their albums are pretty unmemorable – but that takes nothing away from the brilliant lunatic at the mic stand. Pick a random Queen hit and be rewarded by the dexterity of his instrument. Too bad the movie about his life is complete garbage (love the sequence about the making of “Bohemian Rhapsody” though).

Anyway, “Somebody to Love” is way down on my list of favourite Queen songs. (“Bohemian Rhapsody” will always be at the top, but in recent years “Don’t Stop Me Now” – shoutout to the rest of the band on backing vocals: they always have amazing harmonies – and “I Want to Break Free” have given me a lot of pleasure.) But there is certainly an argument to be made that it’s Freddie’s best individual performance. His voice switches gears on a dime, low then high, quiet then loud. I love the way he sings the “everybody wants to put me down” line at around the 1:44 mark, and he really does sound a little mad when he sings “crazy”. There’s a lot of repetition in the song: it feels like it’s going to end about a half dozen times, but it goes on and on and on, way past the point when it should finish up, but Freddie and the lads still hold your attention. 

And little Anne Hathaway took that on? Did her people try to talk her out of it? They should have – there’s no better way to highlight the frailties of your own voice by covering a Queen song. Maybe she was under a spell, like her character in the film. Was “Ella Enchanted” really a documentary? “Here, Anne, put on this old-timey outfit and act like you’re a rock star.” Zing! And you find yourself way out of your depth but go for it anyway because you have no choice.

There aren’t a ton of versions out there – professional musicians really know better, but Troye Sivan does a weird sort of dirge-like gloom monster meets teen idol version that isn’t as completely horrible as that description makes it sound. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus really believe in the song, but, yikes, the lead singer is pretty dreadful. And the season one cast of “Glee” did a decent job of butchering it into submission, which was pretty much what happened weekly on that show for long after most of the world stopped caring.

For Anne’s competition, I chose MxPx, a pop punk band that I sort of recall (I erroneously thought they had a track on the “American Pie 2” soundtrack). At one point they were considered Christian punk, which is a thing I did not know existed but am now dying to dig into. It sounds exactly like you’d expect – sped up, sung in a yelling monotone, completely lacking in subtlety. Which is sort of the smart play: if you love Queen and know you can’t compete with Freddie – because who can? – then you need to make your own path through their songs. 

And then there’s Anne. Strangely, though most of the “Ella Enchanted” soundtrack is on Spotify, this song has been pulled (Anne’s people trying to protect her too late, perhaps). Thankfully, the movie clip is preserved for the curious on YouTube. Somehow, it’s worse than I remember. Her voice is strong enough, but there isn’t a lot of colour or nuance, and the cover is so committed to trying to sound like the original that it’s doomed to failure. Only a lunatic goes head on with Freddie.

The Winner: MxPx

This was a tough one. I wanted to reward Anne for her nerve, but it just isn’t a very good record: if you’re going to be slavish in a cover, you need to be a powerhouse, and that just doesn’t describe my almost-girlfriend. But MxPx, sometimes for the worse but often enough for the better, make the song their own, and I like it more with each play. It’s sort of a stacked deck – I owned that “American Pie 2” soundtrack because I love pop punk – but it’s still an honourable effort in tribute to the master, and that gets them over the top. Anne will have to make do with her Oscar and the sweet memories of our near miss for now.